Reviewed by Richard P. Hallion Ph.D.
Author Jon K. Hendrickson’s book Crisis in the Mediterranean is most timely, as its publication happily coincided with the beginning of commemorations of the centenary of the Great War.
If, to the public mind, naval power in that war is too often neglected in favor of the mud and misery of the Western Front, military professionals and students of military and diplomatic history will recognize the influence that maritime strategy and naval developments played in the war. Churchill’s famously remarked that Grand Fleet commander Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was the only commander who could “lose the war in an afternoon.” Although he was arguably overbroad, Churchill nevertheless captured the centrality of naval power to the war.
As with the war on land and the emergence of war in the air, the war at sea witnessed the introduction of new technologies that dramatically increased the capabilities of surface combatants. In the case of the submarine, new technologies transformed the face of naval warfare itself.
The role of naval power was an accelerant to war, as exemplified by the great Anglo-German naval rivalry prior to conflict. It has been extensively studied by a wide range of historians, and is bounded, in effect, from the late Arthur Marder’s The Road to War, 1904-1914, the first of his epochal multivolume study From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow (London: Oxford University Press, 1961) to Jan Rüger’s The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
The focus on Britain and Germany has so illuminated their rival naval thinking and strategies so bright that it darkened naval thought, planning, and strategies of the “others:” those lesser naval powers that confronted the challenge of adjusting to the Anglo-German naval rivalry and their own rivalries, played out in the Mediterranean and Adriatic. While Marder and Rüger mention these nations in passing, their discussion understandably treats them as effectively a sideshow to the more dramatic naval theaters of the North Sea.
Hendrickson (the first Class of 1957 Fellow in Naval History at the United States Naval Academy) has brought into light the naval competition and maneuvering of these lesser powers. In so doing, he has added greatly to our appreciation for the complex naval environment existing at the beginning of August 1914.
Hendrickson begins by examining what he calls “The Mediterranean Equilibrium,” as the “Century of British Dominance in the Mediterranean” (p.16). It was the decline of British maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean (which, as author Hendrickson notes, it was won only after a century of conflict culminating at Trafalgar) that led to the destabilization of this equilibrium, and encouraged naval rivalries among these lesser powers that “would have ushered in a new Mediterranean equilibrium,” save for the “unexpected outbreak of World War I” (p. 1).
A chief feature of these lesser rivalries were the maritime arms races to take advantage of the naval developments of the late steel-and-steam era. This was coupled with technologies such as centralized fire control, torpedoes, steam turbines, etc. France, Italy, and Austria-Hungary—the last became an unpleasant surprise for Britain—embarked on costly force restructuring and build-up.
Italy’s position among these powers made a stable alignment of rival states into two camps an effective impossibility. Italy was nominally part of the Triple Alliance, with being Germany and Austria-Hungary, making them a rival to Great Britain and France. Their position within this alliance afforded significant security against what might otherwise have been its two great regional “threats,” France and Austria-Hungary. At the outbreak of the Great War, Italy remained briefly neutral before casting its lot in with the Allies. This led to the unexpected result that, rather than being a foe of the British-French alliance, they became an ally and a foe of its previous partners, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Stranger partnerships have rarely existed, illuminating what might be termed the “Greater Lesser Power Politics” of the time.
Between 1904 and 1914, naval spending by Mediterranean powers like Italy roughly doubled. Austrian naval investment in that time nearly tripled. Italy’s doubled. France, always spending approximately twice that of Italy and over three times that of Austria, rose by approximately sixty percent. That money bought new classes of warships that overthrew the previous “equilibrium.” By 1912, the fleets were surprisingly balanced in capabilities. Battle-line tonnage of the Austrian and Italian fleets, for example, was roughly equal (though Austria was on an accelerated growth rate that would take it past that of Italy given time), and more significantly, the broadside throw-weight of the two fleets was roughly equivalent as well (this reflects a precipitous decline in Italy’s throw-weight between 1908-09, and Austria overall doubling of its throw-weight between 1907 and 1911). (For more information, see his Tables 1.1, 3.1, and 3.2)
Thus, at least to this reviewer, a stage was set for what could have been a much-wider-ranging Mediterranean naval war more resembling more of the Second World War than the First, one that if not having, perhaps, its own “Jutland,” might well have had its own “Matapan.” [Since Hendrickson’s is largely a policy study, readers may wish to consult Siegfried Breyer’s classic Battleships and Battle Cruisers, 1905-1970 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1973) to examine the technical characteristics of the various vessels involved, many of which were surprisingly powerful, robust, and fleet-worthy ships].
Hendrickson provocatively depicts this growing naval rivalry in terms of a counterfactual “what might have been” had the Great War not occurred. Instead, as he notes:
“The stage was set for a naval race that, for a chance meeting in Sarajevo, never happened. World War I ultimately allowed Britain to reassert its place as the dominant Mediterranean power, as Italy swapped sides, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires fell apart, and France drew down military expenditures after the war.” (p. 187)
Hendrickson’s work adds both to our understanding of Mediterranean naval affairs and the Mediterranean cockpit of potential-and-actual conflict. In recent years, a number of historians have devoted increasing attention to the Balkans, and (in particular) to Italy’s short, sharp war with Turkey in 1911-12. The author commendably moors this work to such milestones and influences, and it makes his history all the more convincing. Overall, he has done impressive research in primary sources in the national archives of the various countries, and it shows. Despite such an academic pedigree, his book is remarkably free of the kind of pedantic, formulaic writing often found among “Academy” products turned into books.
Readers will its implied lessons for our own times, on what happens when a dominant power loses its position of relative supremacy and thereby opens up an opportunity for others to attempt to fill the vacuum—and the terrible price that is typically paid by sailors, airmen, and soldiers when such occurs.
This is a most welcome, provocative, insightful, and highly recommended work, one that is, indeed, an essential reference for any student of Great War naval history and policy.
Dr. Hallion is a former Air Force historian with extensive service to various agencies.