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The Kaiser’s Fleet
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
May 2016

Austria entered the Napoleonic Wars with a navy consisting of two gunboats, one based at Trieste and the other at Fiume. Charged with enforcing customs regulations, the tiny navy had no role in the empire’s military plans and was not even mobilized until March 1797.

Austria’s flirtation with sea power began in 1382, when Duke Leopold III of Austria undertook to protect the port city of Trieste from Venice, but for the next several centuries the Habsburg Empire did not make an effort to build naval power.

Things began to change in October 1797 when the Treaty of Campoformio assigned Venice to Austria. Along with the proud city came what was left of its navy: ten 74-gun ships of the line, seven frigates, and a large number of galleys. The best ships and most equipment and materials had been taken from Venice’s Arsenal for the French Navy’s use.

Typically overwrought Habsburg bureaucracy resulted in two naval establishments claiming jurisdiction over the ships: the “Trieste Navy,” consisting of the two gunboats and commanded by Col. James Ernest von Williams, and the “Venice Navy” commanded by Venetian aristocrat Andrea Querini but holding authority only over the Arsenal. Both commanders recommended that the four frigates and two smaller warships found undamaged be overhauled and manned to protect Austrian trade in the Adriatic and Mediterranean, then suffering costly raids by North African corsairs. The Austrian finance ministry refused to fund the effort, and made things worse by discontinuing the Venetian Republic’s payments of bribes to the Barbary pirates.

The ships of the line found in the Arsenal could not be made ready for sea until the channels outside the shipyard had been deepened. Worse, the French had knocked the stocks out from under them before leaving, and most had been heavily damaged when they crashed onto their sides. Austria acquired three more in a complete state of readiness when Ancona fell to a combined Austrian-Russian force in 1799 and Austrian officers sneaked aboard to raise the red-white-red naval ensign over all the vessels in the harbor before the Russians could take possession. The act helped cost the Habsburgs their alliance with Russia, and after a naval parade to Venice the ships were left to rot. Stengel, Beyrand and Laharpe, former Venetian ships in French service, were eventually broken up and their timbers sold for firewood.

Not until 1801 did Austria begin to make use of the former Venetian warships, when Archduke Charles took office as “War and Navy Minister” and for the first time the fleet had a powerful patron in Vienna. Charlkes authorized a fleet of eight frigates, tasked with protecting Austrian trade as far south as Malta, and appointed emigre French royalist officers to command them. Funding shortfalls kept the squadron at three frigates, a corvette and four brigs, but they began to operate against French privateers and North African corsairs. A squadron of two brigs sailed to the Moroccan coast in a vain attempt to intimidate the Sultan into stopping attacks on Austrian shipping.


The Arsenal of Venice, as seen in 1850.

When war returned in 1805, the tiny Austrian navy could not man all of its ships and only the corvette and two brigs put to sea. France defeated Austria decisively at Ulm and at Austerlitz, forcing the empire to hand over all its former Venetian territory plus all former Venetian warships in Austrian service. Reduced to three brigs, the Austrian squadron moved to Senj, a longtime base for Croatian pirates.

Austrian troops boarded four Russian ships of the line interned at Trieste in 1807, but Austria made no move to man the vessels.When war returned again in 1809, the tiny Austrian fleet received direct orders not to challenge the far more powerful French. The brig Delphino, ignoring these instructions, captured a French gunboat to give Austria a naval victory in its only sea battle of the Napoleonic wars.

The Treaty of Schonbrünn handed all of Austria’s coastal lands to the French, temporarily making Austria a land-locked country and ending the need for a navy. British warships seized the four remaining brigs and British crews took them to Malta, where they were sold at auction with the cash received sent to Vienna.

Emperor Franz at first released the navy’s small officer corps from their oaths of allegiance, considered a deadly insult by many. Relenting, the emperor allowed them to transfer to the army and most ended up with the Danube gunboat flotilla. For the next several years the navy ceased to exist, but in November 1813 Austrian troops re-enetred Trieste and armed four small gunboats to re-inaugurate the Austrian Navy.

Unlike Trieste, Venice held out for seven months under siege and only yielded to the Austrians when Napoleon’s Italian viceroy, Eugene de Beauharnais, signed an armistice in April 1814. The agreement specified that all ships, fortifications and naval stores had to be turned over intact, and French Vice Admiral Guy Duperré kept his word. Ten ships of the line (four complete and six still under construction), eight frigates (three complete, five under construction) and a number of smaller vessels fell into Austrian hands. Officers and crews proved harder to find, as Franz snubbed those who had served Napoleon even though the 1805 peace treaty had required Venetians to transfer to Italian service and Franz had released the remainder from their oaths in 1809.

The three complete frigates would eventually sail under Austrian colors, as Austria, Augusta and Caroline. Only one of the ships of the line ever saw Austrian service, as the fleet commander’s stationary flagship anchored in Venice’s lagoon; two of the others would sail after they had been cut down to frigates. Austria tried to sell the remainder to a variety of nations including the United States and the Pope. The only serious offer, a Danish trade of 3,000 cavalry mounts for three ships of the line and a frigate, fell through when the king of Denmark backed out of the deal. Austria continued to try to sell her ships, but one by one they fell prey to fire and rot.

In our Soldier Emperor game Austria has one weak fleet, which is never available at the start of a scenario. We gave it no special rules because that seemed useless for a piece that rarely enters play, but Daily Content variants are under no such constraints.

The Austrian fleet can only be placed at Venezia, and can only be constructed if the Austrian player controls both Venezia and Croatia. If Venezia has never been conquered by another power, Austria can construct two more fleets under the same restrictions. If at any time Austria has no coastal areas, all Austrian fleets are removed from play.

In addition, for both this variant and the Serene Republic variant fleets built by Austria or Venice take only three turns to arrive rather than the usual four, reflecting the enormous productive capacity of the Arsenal.

You can download the new Austrian fleet pieces here.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.