Ausro-Hungarian cruiser Zenta under fire from French Dreadnought Courbet
Prior to 1914 it was widely assumed that fleets of battleships, supported by scouting cruisers, and by flotillas of destroyers and torpedo boats, would clash in climatic battles that might well decide the outcome of an entire war. This had indeed happened three times since Trafalgar – Japanese victories over China at the Yalu in 1895, and, massively, over the Russians in Tsu-Shima in 1905, and the American triumphs over Spanish forces at Manila Bay and Santiago in 1898, had been the decisive factors in bringing the vanquished to the negotiating table.
|Russian annihilation at Tsu Shima 1905|
The "Super Trafalgar" of the Age of Steam
What had not been sufficiently appreciated however was the fact that the very magnitude of this fighting capability, and the massive investment, it represented, made risking its loss potentially fatal. Churchill summed up the situation with his description of Admiral Jellicoe, commander of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet as “The only man who could lose the entire war in a single afternoon.” World War 1’s only full-fleet confrontation, that between the British and German navies at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, was to be characterised by caution on both sides, though it can be argued that the Germans “blinked first”. Pre-war thinking had emphasised the role of gunnery and had taken insufficient note of the extent to which minefields, and increasingly submarines, would change the nature of sea warfare. In practice the presence of a “Fleet in Being”, kept in protected anchorages but representing a threat which could be unleashed at any time, was to prove critical in obliging an enemy to deploy its forces so as to be ready to deal with it. The initiative rested with the possessor of the fleet in being.
The informal Anglo-French accords reached in the decade before the war were based on an assumption of confrontation with the Triple Entente of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy. It was agreed that British naval power was to be primarily concentrated in the North Sea to confront Germany, while French forces were to face the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navies in the Mediterranean. In the event Italy was to stay out of the war initially, and when she finally entered, in 1915, was to do so, for the most cynical of reasons, on the side of Britain and France.
In August 1914 the main French concern was protection of troop convoys between French possessions in North Africa and Metropolitan France (and indeed throughout the war France was to depend heavily on colonial troops). With Turkey not yet formally involved in the war the main threat to such convoys would come from the Austro-Hungarian fleet, a powerful force with four modern dreadnoughts, ten pre-dreadnoughts and three old coast-defence ships, with significant cruiser, destroyer, torpedo boats and submarine forces to support them. It was a well-balanced fleet but its weakness was that it was based in the Adriatic, a long-narrow sea that could only be exited or entered by the 48-mile wide Strait of Otranto. The main Austro-Hungarian naval base was at Pola, at the Adriatic’s northern end.
For the larger French navy there were two options – to enter the Adriatic in force and hope that the Austro-Hungarian fleet would accept the challenge and face annihilation or to close off the Adriatic by blockading the Otranto Straits. In the first month of the war the first option looked like an attractive one, possibly the more so since France had no naval victory to its name since its humiliation at Trafalgar.
|The pride of the Austro-Hungarian Navy:|
Viribus Unitis, lead ship of a class of four
|Zenta (1897), small, obsolete and lightly armed|
|Destroyer Streiter of the Hussar Class,similar to the Ulan|
Courbet, Jean Bart
Pre-dreadnought battleships (Last of this type, 6- 8 years in service):
Voltaire, Vergniaud, Diderot, Danton, Condorcet,
Vérité, Justice, Démocratie, Patrie, République
Victor Hugo, Jules Ferry
Jurien de la Gravière
5 destroyer squadrons
3 Destroyer divisions
|Courbet - France's first dreadnought|
|The Zenta's last stand, as depicted on a contemporary postcard|
|The Danton - an appointment with a German U-boat |
off Sardinia in 1917 lies in her future
Forgotten today, the hopeless stand by the Zenta deserves to be remembered in the same way as those of the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay in World War 2. In all these cases flight was an option – and it was always refused. The Zenta’s crew died in the service of a moribund empire and a senile emperor, better men that those they died for so heroically.
Britannia’s Spartan - and the Taku Forts, 1859
The Anglo-French assault at the Taku Forts in Northern China – and the highly irregular but welcome intervention of the neutral United States Navy – was one of the most dramatic incidents of the mid-nineteenth century. It also led to the only defeat of the Royal Navy between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War 1.
A remark of the American commander at the height of the battle - "Blood is thicker than water" - has entered the English language.
The Taku Forts attack event is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.