In March 1918, a United States navy memorandum characterized the Adriatic Sea as “practically an Austrian lake, in which no Allied naval operations of importance are undertaken.” The assessment came just four weeks after the Austro-Hungarian navy suffered its worst mutiny of the First World War, foreshadowing the complete collapse of the Dual Monarchy’s armed forces, and the empire itself, a mere eight months later. The domination of the Adriatic by Austria-Hungary, right up to the eve of the Armistice, remains one of the more remarkable, and overlooked, dimensions of the conflict of 1914-1918. Indeed, the Dual Monarchy hardly rated as a strong candidate to assert local naval power effectively, even during the long prewar period of peace. Compared to Europe’s other five great powers at the turn of the century, only Russia was less urbanized, only Russia and Italy less industrialized, and none had a less extensive coastline. None, too, was so dominated by another great power, as Austria-Hungary depended on its German ally not just for support and protection in the military and diplomatic sense, but also for nearly half of its foreign trade. Worst of all, Austria-Hungary was a multinational anomaly in a Europe dominated by great power nation states, and its own leaders – the House of Habsburg and the ministers serving it – had a long history of lacking either the imagination or the resolve to make the changes needed to ensure the long-term viability of the empire. In the one great attempt at political reform, the Compromise of 1867, the traditionally dominant German Austrian minority agreed to share power with the most recalcitrant of the host of nationalities they ruled, the Hungarians, but at the expense of all the others, thus saddling the empire with a constitutional structure that doomed it to failure. In the face of such obstacles, it appears all the more remarkable that Austria-Hungary was able to articulate maritime interests, develop overseas trade with partners as distant as China and Japan, and build a navy strong enough to safeguard the empire’s Adriatic littoral as well as show the flag overseas. Indeed, the unique coalition of special interests that supported Austro-Hungarian sea power – interests that reached far inland, and united a number of otherwise-hostile national groups – serves as an intriguing example of the sort of cooperation the multinational empire needed to counter the centrifugal forces of nationalism, the forces that ultimately caused its demise.
Background, to 1866
Austria acquired its first seaport, Trieste, in 1382, but its foothold on the Adriatic remained insignificant until the Napoleonic wars. In 1797 the demise of the Venetian Republic added Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia to the Habsburg empire, an inheritance confirmed after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. From then until 1848, Venice served as base for the imperial navy, a modest force dominated by Venetians, with Italian as its language of command. While its focus remained on the Adriatic, the navy’s frigates and smaller sailing warships defended Austrian interests throughout the Mediterranean, bombarding a Moroccan pirate port in 1829 and supporting the British navy in the Near Eastern Crisis of 1840. Widespread desertions during the Venetian revolution of 1848-49 facilitated the navy’s rebirth as a multinational force based at Pola (Pula) on the Istrian peninsula, with German Austrians providing most of the officers and Croatians a plurality of the manpower. Venice remained Austrian until 1866 but its eclipse was well underway long before then. Trieste’s status as a free port (1719-1891) attracted Greek, Armenian, and Jewish merchants whose Eastern Mediterranean connections brought lasting benefits to the city. In 1836 Trieste became home to the empire’s first steamship company, the Austrian Lloyd, and in 1857 the completion of a railway across the Alps linked Trieste with Vienna and the nascent rail network of central Europe.
While Emperor Franz Joseph (reigned 1830-1916) had little appreciation for sea power, the empire’s maritime interests benefited from the patronage of his younger brother, Archduke Ferdinand Max, and later of his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand Max, better known to history as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, entered naval service in 1851 and became commanding admiral just three years later. The archduke accelerated the navy’s transition from sail to steam power but kept Austria out of the European naval race of the 1850s, in which Britain and France built dozens of steam-powered wooden ships of the line. His wisdom paid dividends at the end of the decade, when the leading navies started to build armor-plated steam frigates as their capital ships, rendering all wooden battleships obsolete. Austria built just one steam ship of the line, the Kaiser (1858), which was eventually converted to an ironclad.
France’s victory over Austria in the War of 1859 opened the way for Sardinia-Piedmont to become the catalyst for a united Italy, proclaimed two years later. The Austrian navy spent the brief war blockaded by a superior French force, a humiliation that gave Ferdinand Max the justification he needed to add armored warships to the fleet. After the Sardinians ordered two ironclads from a French shipyard late in 1860, the archduke placed orders for the first pair of Austrian ironclads. Over the next six years Italy commissioned twelve ironclads, eleven of them built in foreign shipyards, while Austria struggled to respond with seven, all built in Trieste. But before the two rivals met in battle in the Adriatic, the Austrian navy received a call to action from an unexpected quarter. In 1864, when Austria joined Prussia and the smaller German states in a war against Denmark over the Schleswig-Holstein question, the Danes blockaded the north German ports. Denmark’s overwhelming naval superiority over Prussia left Austria holding the key to victory at sea for the German allies. The war’s decisive naval battle occurred on 9 May, when a small unarmored squadron under Captain Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, in the steam frigate Schwarzenberg, engaged Danish forces off Helgoland. The Danes subsequently withdrew to the Skagerrak, ending their blockade. The Austrian ironclads saw no action, but two of them were included in a larger force that followed Tegetthoff’s squadron to the North Sea, ensuring the Danes would not reimpose the blockade. The navy’s baptism of fire in 1864 also marked the emergence of Tegetthoff, elevated to rear admiral, as the leading figure within the Austrian navy, filling the void left when Ferdinand Max had departed for Mexico earlier that year.
The war of 1866 and its aftermath
After the War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian relationship deteriorated over a proposed reform of the German Confederation, and the two countries began to prepare for war. Prussia concluded an alliance with Italy and, as the price of securing French neutrality, Austria accepted Emperor Napoleon III’s demand that it cede Venetia to Italy after the war. The Austrians believed the cession would ensure Italian neutrality too, but Italy declared war anyway, hoping to acquire more than just Venetia. In the ensuing War of 1866, the Austrian army thus had to fight separate campaigns in the north (which it lost) and the south (which it won), while the naval action was limited to the Adriatic. The Italian ironclad fleet included just three armor-plated wooden ships along with nine ships of iron construction, and carried the latest imported ordnance; in contrast, Tegetthoff’s flagship, the 5,100-ton Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, and the six other Austrian ironclads were armor-plated wooden ships armed with guns from the ImperialRoyal Foundry at Mariazell. After the Prussians crushed the Austrian northern army at Königgrätz (3 July 1866), then marched to the outskirts of Vienna, the Austrians had to redeploy their victorious southern army to defend the imperial capital. The Italian army then occupied Venetia unopposed, and Italian leaders planned landings in Istria and Dalmatia, now claimed for Italy because they had once been part of the Venetian Republic. To clear the way for the landings, the Italians first planned to “take possession of an important station in the Adriatic,” the island of Lissa. They were on the verge of putting troops ashore when Tegetthoff arrived off the island with the Austrian fleet on 20 July. In the melee that followed, inferior Austrian guns and incompetent Italian gunners ensured that neither side would inflict serious damage on the other. Tegetthoff used ramming tactics to compensate for his weaker artillery, and at the climax of the four-hour engagement, his Erzherzog Ferdinand Max rammed and sank the Italian flagship Re d’Italia. A second Italian ironclad, the Palestro, caught fire and exploded as the Italian fleet withdrew. “The whole thing was chaos,” Tegetthoff confided afterward to a friend. “It is a miracle that we did not lose a ship.” The peace settlement that autumn awarded the Italians only Venetia, which they would have received without going to war at all.
The stunning victory earned Tegetthoff a promotion to vice admiral, but it was his role leading the mission to bring Maximilian’s body back from Mexico the following year that earned him the undying gratitude of Franz Joseph. In 1868 the emperor confirmed Tegetthoff as commander of the navy and lent his support to a fleet plan including fifteen ironclads. Tegetthoff’s premature death in 1871 left it unrealized, and also ushered in a long period of less effective naval leadership. His legacy included the widespread emulation of his ramming tactics, reflected in warship designs that continued to include exaggerated ram bows long after the increasing range of naval artillery rendered fanciful any notion of one warship ramming another in battle. More important for Austria-Hungary, the memory of Tegetthoff’s decisive victory against a superior Italian foe heartened the Habsburg fleet, and haunted the Italian navy, right down to 1918.
Meanwhile, amid the post-Tegetthoff malaise, the navy grew weaker than its Italian rival. It registered few accomplishments aside from being the first to adopt the self-propelled torpedo, invented by Johann Luppis, an Austrian captain, and developed by British expatriate Robert Whitehead at a factory at Fiume (Rijeka), Hungary’s leading port after the subdivision of the empire in 1867. The new torpedo technology laid the foundation for the Jeune École, the French navy’s “Young School,” which by the 1880s promoted a strategy of cruiser and torpedo warfare as the key to challenging British naval power worldwide. During that decade the Jeune École had a near-universal impact, as most of the great powers built many more cruisers and torpedo boats, and fewer battleships. Austria-Hungary embraced the new strategy after the conclusion of the Triple Alliance (1882), which united the Dual Monarchy with Germany and Italy, eliminating the navy’s anti-Italian raison d’etre. While Italy, thereafter, dreamed of becoming a Mediterranean power on a par with France, Austria-Hungary hedged its bets by developing a torpedo deterrent in the Adriatic to defend itself in case Italy changed its foreign policy. Between 1876 and 1893, the navy commissioned just two battleships. Otherwise, its largest new units were the 4,000-ton “ram cruisers” Kaiser Franz Joseph I (1890) and Kaiserin Elisabeth (1892), protected cruisers intended for service as flotilla leaders for torpedo boats. By the early 1890s Austria-Hungary had the weakest navy, by far, of any of the six great powers of Europe.
In the first years after Austria-Hungary resumed its battleship program in 1893, the buildup was justified not by a deterioration of relations with Italy but by the goal of putting the Triple Alliance in a better position to counter the new Franco-Russian alliance in the Mediterranean. Over the next thirteen years Austria-Hungary ordered twelve battleships: three each of the 5,600-ton Monarch class, the 8,300-ton Habsburg class, the 10,600-ton Erzherzog class, and the 14,500-ton Radetzky class. The navy also commissioned three armored cruisers. Aside from one battleship and one armored cruiser laid down in the Pola arsenal, all were built in Trieste by the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino. Starting with the armored cruiser Maria Theresia (1895), the navy ordered all of its armor plate from Witkowitz of Moravia, and from 1901 it ordered its guns from Bohemia’s Skoda works rather than Germany’s Krupp. In 1901 the navy leadership won over traditionally anti-navy Hungarian leaders by promising Hungarian firms a share of naval spending equal to the Hungarian contribution to the joint budget of the Dual Monarchy. Thus, in a divided domestic political landscape a broad pro-navy coalition evolved which represented the interests of nationalities far from the Adriatic.
During the same years, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, became the empire’s leading naval enthusiast after travelling to Japan in 1892-93 aboard the cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth. The archduke’s patronage of the navy became more significant as Franz Joseph grew older and allowed his heir to assert more influence, especially over the armed forces. While Franz Ferdinand never openly opposed Austria-Hungary’s alignment with Germany, the degree of dependence troubled him more than it did most of the empire’s leaders. As a result, he viewed the development of overseas trade, and of the naval forces to support it, as crucial to the Dual Monarchy’s future as an autonomous great power. In the years after the completion of the Suez Canal (1869), the Austrian Lloyd had extended its service to the Far East, enabling Trieste to establish itself as a leading point of entry for European imports from Asia. Amid the ensuing prosperity, Trieste grew to become continental Europe’s fifth-busiest port (after Hamburg, Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Genoa). By 1913, the overall value of the city’s trade with Asia far surpassed the figure for the Asian trade of all ports of the kingdom of Italy combined. While the Lloyd eventually opened a line to Brazil it did not add service to North America, leaving a void that was filled after 1895 by the Austro-Americana, which ultimately handled over half of Trieste’s emigrant traffic with the United States. The Lloyd also never served the Western Mediterranean and Western European ports, leaving that trade to a Hungarian company, the Adria Line, established in 1882 at Fiume. The growth of Fiume, modest compared to Trieste, nevertheless sufficed to make it continental Europe’s seventh-busiest port by 1913.