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The Triple Alliance War Plan
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2015

Italy joined the Dual Alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1882, making it the Triple Alliance. Italy’s fealty to the alliance waxed and waned over the decades that followed, but in the years just before the First World War the kingdom strengthened its ties to the two empires.

France’s Entente Cordiale with Britain, signed in 1904, brought those two powers ever closer together in the years that followed. Informal talks - sometimes extremely detailed – reached the conclusion that the French fleet should be concentrated in the Mediterranean, and the British in the North Sea. In the summer of 1912 the French battleships that had steamed to the Mediterranean for their annual exercises did not return to the Channel ports, as had been their usual pattern, signaling that France would now aim her naval power to the south.

This change alarmed the upper echelons of the Royal Italian Navy, who had also just gained new responsibilities with the seizure of Libya and the Dodecanese Islands from Ottoman Turkey in the just-concluded Italo-Turkish War. Italy’s naval command now sought a much firmer commitment from her Triple Alliance allies for combined operations in the event of war with France and possibly Britain. Most importantly, would the rapidly-growing Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Kriegsmarine commit to leaving the Adriatic Sea and fighting alongside Italy in the central Mediterranean Basin?

Italian political leaders withheld details of the Triple Alliance from the high commands of both the Army and Navy. When Alberto Pollio, chief of the Army’s general staff, inquired after his service’s responsibilities to Italy’s allies in event of war, foreign minister Antonio Marquis di San Giuliano bluntly told him that such information was only distributed on a strict need-to-know basis, and that the commander-in-chief of the Army had no need to know. Should war become likely, San Giuliano continued, then and only then would Pollio be told what the alliance entailed.

Lacking direction, the chiefs of both the Army and Navy each independently took the initiative to contact their opposite numbers in Vienna and Berlin to make plans for war, apparently without consulting their civilian chiefs. Pollio, for his part, sent a representative to meet with German chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke and inform him that due to the recent war in Libya, the Italian Third Army of five corps and four cavalry divisions would not be able to join the far left flank of the German armies facing France. But he did promise to conduct “an energetic offensive” across the Alps, and proposed an amphibious landing in Provence by the Third Army in order to turn the French flank.

Another of Pollio’s officers gave the same presentation to Austrian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff. Austrian intelligence sources confirmed the massive expenditure of money, equipment and ammunition in Libya and the shortage of officers among Italian regiments. Pollio was not withdrawing his commitment, the analysts advised, but rather truly did not have the resources to keep it. Conrad, a bitter Italophobe, scoffed at the Italian admission of weakness and once again recommended a pre-emptive attack on Italy.


The Austrian dreadnought division at Pola.

But the Navy’s chief, Admiral Rudolf Graf Montecuccoli, saw things differently. His service’s primary mission consisted of protecting Austria-Hungary’s Adriatic coastline from enemy attack. The further that enemy could be engaged from Austrian waters, Montecuccoli reasoned, the better for the Dual Monarchy. And the best guarantee for Austrian coastal security would be a firm alliance with Italy – a new naval convention calling for the fleets in unite in wartime seemed a solid step in that direction.

The Triple Alliance had signed a naval convention in 1900, and nothing had been discussed since – archivists in all three member nations had to be consulted to determine whether the letter even remained in force. The agreement contained vague promises of cooperation, allowed ships of the three member nations to use one another’s ports and facilities, and divided the Mediterranean into rather meaningless zones of operation, since in 1900 Austria-Hungary had neither the means nor the desire to project naval power outside the Adriatic and Germany had no permanent Mediterranean Squadron.

With Montecuccoli’s interest aroused, and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II prodding his allies to reach an agreement, roundabout talks began between low-level officials. The Austrians went so far as leasing colliers and a refrigerator ship from the Austria Lloyd steamship line for the fleet concentration, and stockpiling 30,000 tons of high-quality English Newcastle coal.

Talks began seriously in January 1913, with the German Maj. Gen. Georg Graf von Waldersee, Senior Quartermaster of the German General Staff, quietly shuttling between Rome, Berlin and Vienna. Most of the discussions involved issues of land warfare, and in March the Italians suggested that the naval staffs should hold their own talks.

Pollio agreed, but obtained King Vittorio Emanuele’s approval to keep the discussions between the allied militaries - with no civilian involvement - on the grounds of operational security. The War Ministry and the Marine Ministry would also be kept out of the loop. Admiral Paolo Thaon di Revel, the naval chief of staff, believed that a solid allied plan for war could not be formed without knowing the exact terms of the alliance and on his own initiative asked San Giuliano for details of the treaty. Revel received the same mushroom treatment as his Army counterpart, and apparently decided that if San Giuliano felt the diplomatic details need not be disclosed to the military, then military details need not be disclosed to the diplomats. The talks went forward without the knowledge, much less the approval, of the Italian Foreign Ministry.


Italian dreadnought Dante Alighieri at Taranto.

Throughout the rest of the spring and summer, a trio of fairly junior Austrian, Italian and German naval officers met, talked and conferred with their bosses and each other: Commander Prince Johannes von und zu Liechtenstein for Austria-Hungary, Commander Angelo Ugo Conz for Italy, and Captain Paul Behncke for Germany. While the Italians had feared being left to bear the brunt of a naval war while their allies cited the 1900 agreement, they found the Austrians very willing to join them and commit far more forces than the Italians expected.

Conz, acting for Revel, tentatively asked Liechtenstein to promise the support of the Austrian dreadnoughts and semi-dreadnoughts for operations in the central Mediterranean, along with their most modern scout cruisers and destroyers. The Austrians not only agreed, but offered to add every pre-dreadnought in the fleet, all of their armored cruisers and older destroyers, and a dozen torpedo boats as well.

Having staked all of Austria-Hungary’s naval strength on the combined fleet (only the ancient coast defense ships of the Monarch class and the short-range torpedo boats not suitable for operations far from the coast were left out), Liechtenstein now pressed for a concession from the Germans. The battle cruiser Goeben had been sent out to Constantinople during the Balkan Wars to represent German interests, and the High Seas Fleet desperately desired her return to the North Sea. The French had nothing like her, and the Austrians considered the battle cruiser’s retention in the Mediterranean an important advantage for the Triple Alliance. The Austrian adroitly maneuvered his German counterparts into presenting Goeben’s presence in the combined fleet to their chiefs as a pre-requisite for Austrian participation, though they already knew that the Austrians would join the effort regardless of Goeben. The Germans agreed, on the condition that she serve under Austrian command, and the battle cruiser was initially assigned to the Austrian dreadnought division. The Germans later negotiated a codicil to the naval convention assuring that Goeben would be regarded as a cruiser and assigned with other cruisers to cruiser missions – raids on enemy troop convoys, fleet scouting and the like.

The officers also brought together their bosses’ views on bases for the combined fleet. The Italians had planned in case of war to put their main fleet at La Spezia to challenge the French at Toulon and to protect Italy’s Ligurian coast. Since the Austrians obviously would decline to join them that far to the north, they agreed to place their fleet in the lower Tyrrhenian Sea, suggesting Messina as their base. They reserved the right to leave a division of pre-dreadnought battleships at La Spezia to guard against French raids along Italy’s northern coast.

Messina could not hold the entire combined fleet. The Austrian fleet would go to Augusta, on the eastern coast of Sicily south of Messina. There they would have access to supply convoys from their homeland, and could steam out to head off Allied (more than likely British) attempts to enter the Adriatic.

The Germans would also base at Messina. Austrian assessments from the time disagree with the Italian assertion that Messina could handle the entire Italian fleet, pointing to its lack of a direct rail connection to mainland Italy and lingering damage from the massive earthquake and accompanying tsunami of 1908, which destroyed almost every building in the city and killed 70,000 people. They expected the Italians to service their warships at Naples and stage to Messina for operations.

The 1900 convention gave command to whichever nation had been assigned the zone where operations were taking place; that meant that an Italian admiral would command the combined fleet. But the Italians pre-empted the discussion by offering the command to Montecuccoli’s successor, Anton Haus. That gave the Italians the upper hand in the discussions that followed, and neatly solved the problem of seniority – Haus outranked every Italian admiral.

A much larger problem concerned fuel supplies – Italy produced very little coal, importing most of her needs from Britain and, to a smaller extent, from France. The Germans offered to place the output of their mines in Westfalen at the Italians’ disposal, guaranteeing rail shipments of 1,000 tons a day. The Austrian staff suspected that little of that would reach the fleet, and assumed that they not only would have to provide coal for their own fleet, but would likely have to supply both of their allies as well.

In operational matters, the Germans got their way, designating interception and destruction of the troop convoys of the French XIX Corps heading from Algeria to Metropolitan France as the combined fleet’s primary concern. After that, the allies differed. The Germans wished to emphasize commerce warfare across the Mediterranean. In sharp contrast, at home the German High Seas Fleet’s task would be to tie down as much British strength as possible to enable Central Powers success in the Mediterranean. The Italians wanted to seize control of the sea and then effect a massive amphibious landing at St. Tropez, startling the topless throngs with 10 infantry and four cavalry divisions. The naval staff, anxious to keep the Army’s cooperation, went so far as to select the civilian ships that would transport specific units as part of the invasion fleet. Thinking it unlikely that firm enough sea control could be secured for an operation of that scale, the Austrians and Germans agreed.

By the fall of 1913 everyone was in agreement, and after approval of the three sovereigns the new Naval Convention went into effect on 1 November. The Austro-Hungarian and German foreign ministries appear to have been fully aware of the agreement, while Pollio and Revel went directly to their king, by-passing San Giuliani. That bureaucratic slight would have consequences nine months later.

In our book Great War at Sea: Triple Alliance, we send the fleets to war as the three powers planned. In most scenarios, the Austrians are based at Augusta and the Germans at Messina along with the modern Italian cruisers (the large armored cruisers of the Pisa and San Giorgio classes, and the fast minelaying scout cruisers). The Italian battle fleet is based at Naples when the Central Powers are reacting to Allied moves, and usually stages to Messina for Central Powers operations. The fairly useless Austrian pre-dreadnoughts, seen as front-line units in the war plan, are relegated to secondary duties like convoy escort.

The forty scenarios follow the Central Powers operational directive: the French troop transports are the primary objective, followed by seizure of sea control to allow amphibious operations. But talking about sea control and actually taking it are very different propositions: it's tough to sink a dreadnought with gunfire. While we’ve given each side additional warships which were proposed but never actually constructed, it’s been done proportionally. If you want to see how the Mediterranean naval campaign might have unfolded with the forces actually present, you can do that as well.

The striking difference here is how much more aggressive the Austrian and Italian staffs seem when planning joint action than they proved in the actual war. Whether that’s due to the ease of spilling blood and sinking ships on paper as opposed to on the seas themselves is hard to determine at more than a century’s remove. We’ve chosen to take them at their word, and the war portrayed in our scenario set is a very active one, with both sides pushing their ships and men to the limits of their endurance. These are delicate machines despite their size and their impressive appearance, so they can’t operate forever without maintenance, but the Central Powers planned a very active naval war within those limits and that’s what we’ve presented in the book.

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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. Leopold is not named for the archduke.