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Triple Alliance:
Historian's Notes

By Mike Bennighof. Ph.D.
February 2015

When I designed the game that became Great War at Sea: Mediterranean, the idea of using books with some extra pieces to explore historical alternatives actually had occurred to me. I hadn’t really thought through all the inherent possibilities of the books, and set forth to jam just as much history and cool stuff into the game box as possible, even if that meant not fully exploring all of the ideas on which the game touched.

Wargames aren’t by their nature really suited to use as instruments of historical inquiry, and most of them as published are based on laughably bad research (if any), no matter how “deeply read” their designer. I’ve come to appreciate that the book supplement is an opportunity to focus tightly on a historical question, using the base game as a starting point.

Mediterranean includes a scenario based on the Triple Alliance’s war plan, but just one (at least it’s a big one). But the Triple Alliance (Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary) had made detailed plans for war against the Allied powers (assumed to include Britain, France and Russia). It’s a lot more material than can be addressed with one scenario.

With High Seas Fleet, our most recent expansion book for Great War at Sea, I was able to use the format to explore the question of Germany’s commitment to challenging Britain’s dominance at sea. The “Dreadnought Race” was overblown at the time, by cynical arms manufacturers and opportunistic politicians. It wasn’t so much German determination to build battleships that helped bring Britain into the First World War as it was British belief that the Germans meant to do so. And with the book, an expansion for our Jutland game, we could look at how such a fleet, had it actually been built, might have been used in wartime.

High Seas Fleet came out pretty much how I wished, though I probably could have filled a book twice its size. And so even before I knew its sales would be really good (and they have been so far), I decided to write a similar book for our Mediterranean game (plus the Dreadnoughts book). Like High Seas Fleet, Triple Alliance only draws on one boxed game for its parts, and like High Seas Fleet, it’s centered around a historical question: how might the Great War in the Mediterranean have played out had Italy remained true to its Triple Alliance obligations?

Triple Alliance, the book, is built around a set of thirty scenarios testing out that thesis. The short answer is that, on paper at least, Italy and Austria-Hungary have an impressive united fleet, particularly once all 10 of their combined dreadnoughts are available for action. They are more than a match for the French plus the small British Mediterranean squadron based at Malta.

This is the same Italian fleet that refused to leave its bases during the First World War, mostly over the question of combined command. Italy had entered into no pre-war planning with the French or British, seeing them as potential enemies. In contrast, the Triple Alliance had agreed on command arrangements well before the war began: Anton Haus, commander of the Austrian battle fleet, would command the joint forces. The Germans convinced the Italians that the concession was necessary to bring the Austrians out of the Adriatic to fight in waters where the Dual Monarchy had no real interests. And they were probably right.

So the Italian fleet in Triple Alliance is one more eager for battle than that of the actual conflict. Haus spoke fluent Italian and well understood that to keep the alliance together he would have to pursue goals common to all three partners. The Germans, the junior partner in this case, mostly wanted to keep both of their allies active in keeping down Allied naval forces tied down in the Mediterranean. Haus understood that, through strong naval action, he could keep Italian irredentists focused on Italian-speaking lands to the west of Italy (those ruled by France) instead of those to the east (those ruled by Austria).

Therefore the Triple Alliance has numbers on its side and the incentive to seize and hold the strategic initiative in the theater. Corsica and Nice are eventual targets of Haus’ naval operations, though his first objective was to break the maritime line of communications between Metropolitan France and her North Africa colonies. The Austrians insisted that the Italian army would not be able to break through the French Alps – something the Italians appear to have forgotten when they fought against the Austrians starting in 1915 – and Haus planned a great landing in Provence to unhinge the French mountain defenses as the final stage of the naval campaign.

War represented an immense risk for Italy, and a war against Britain would be even riskier than one against Austria-Hungary. Italy depended on imports for many economically vital items, with coal heading the list. Would Germany and Austria-Hungary be able, or even willing, to make up these losses? The long coastline would be vulnerable to Royal Navy raiders. Would Austria-Hungary be willing to keep her fleet based on the Italian west coast, far from her own shores and interests?

Austrian analysts expected Italy to switch sides and fight against the Central Powers; the Germans disagreed and not until after operations had begun were Western Front commanders told not to expect the Italian Third Army to detrain in Alsace to anchor the Germans’ far left flank. It took a series of unusual events to bring Italy to the Allied side, not least of them the sudden death in July 1914 of Italian chief of staff Alberto Pollio, a strong supporter of the Alliance and married to an Austrian noblewoman.

Despite Austrian suspicions, the adherence of Italy to the alliance was probably a more likely outcome than the actual events. With Triple Alliance, the book, we get to explore how the naval war might have played out with Italy on the side of the Central Powers. It’s another rare opportunity to explore some historical alternatives using a wargame. And you get some new toys, plus the third appearance of Austrian flagship SMS Viribus Unitis on one of our covers. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Click here to order Triple Alliance right now.

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.