Triple Alliance:
Telling the Story

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2015

Our new Great War at Sea: Triple Alliance is an expansion book for our Mediterranean boxed game (and only our Mediterranean boxed game). It’s an alternative history book exploring what could have happened had Italy honored her obligations to fight alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary instead of eventually switching sides and fighting against them.

The Triple Alliance had a much more developed joint naval war plan than they did for land operations. Joint command had been agreed before the war, along with basing facilities and a general operational outline. That plan is the basis for the Triple Alliance story arc of scenarios.

We’ve posited a few departures from the historical events of 1914 and preceding years in order to set the stage and make Italian adherence to the Triple Alliance more likely. While the Germans seems to have had at least some hope of Italian assistance in a future war, the Austrians fully expected to see Italy stand with the Dual Monarchy’s enemies, and the foolish Austro-Hungarian general staff chief, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, had even advocated for preventive war against Italy in 1907 and again in 1912.

His Italian counterpart, Alberto Pollio, in contrast felt honor-bound by the Triple Alliance. A fine military historian, specializing in the 1866 Austro-Italian campaign, Pollio strongly supported Italian adherence to the alliance. Pollio’s Austrian wife, Eleonora Gormasz, came from a Jewish family that had been enobled by Franz Josef and had close business ties to the Austrian army; the pair met and married while Pollio served as Italy’s military attaché in Vienna in the 1890’s. As chief of the general staff Pollio, a staunch Russophobe, not only offered to send more Italian troops to fight alongside the Germans than the alliance required, but to dispatch additional Italian divisions to fight alongside the Austrians in Galicia or Serbia if they so requested.

But Pollio would not lead his army into the Great War. He suffered a massive heart attack while on a train in Turin and died on 1 July 1914, four days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Four weeks later King Vittorio Emanuele III named Luigi Cadorna as his replacement. As Pollio’s deputy, Cadorna had supported his chief’s ideas of making sure Italy played a major role in the Triple Alliance’s victory. He activated the pre-war plan to send the Italian Third Army of five corps plus supporting arms to the upper Rhine to fight alongside the Germans, and sent it to the king for approval. Not knowing that Prime Minister Antonio Salandra had decided not to honor the Triple Alliance, Vittorio Emanuele gave Cadorna his approval on August 2nd.

Several small incidents taking place slightly differently could therefore have brought Italy into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Had Pollio survived his heart attack, he would have been present in the Italian Senate to give his great professional weight to the pro-alliance forces. Had Cadorna dispatched the first of Third Army’s 541 troop trains before Salandra countermanded the order, Italian soldiers could have been in action against the French before the prime minister could stop them. Or the king might have overruled Salandra. Several of those are probably more likely than the actual outcome.

While the big change in our Triple Alliance campaign is the alignment of Italy with Austria-Hungary and Germany, there are some others as well. The most noticeable is a heightened naval arms race in the Mediterranean, with France, Italy and Austria-Hungary all accelerating their building and laying down of classes considered in reality as we know it, but not actually constructed.

The change comes with Italian naval constructor Vittorio Cuniberti’s 1903 proposal for a (relatively) fast battleship armed exclusively with big guns along with some much smaller pieces to fend off torpedo boats. There are pieces for four examples included with the book. Austria-Hungary matches that with four examples of the enlarged Radetzky class, an alternative design presented by chief constructor Siegfried Popper but ultimately rejected because of the additional costs for dockyard facilities the larger battleship would have required. With Italy building all-big-gun battleships, Austria would have faced enormous pressure to keep pace.

France would not have remained idle while her two potential enemies built these classes of powerful ships, so they have an additional quartet of dreadnoughts proposed during this same time period but never built. Where the Italians (and British) went for a true all-big-gun design, French practice clung to the medium-caliber gun and its much higher rate of fire. She gets four of the proposed enlarged semi-dreadnoughts, with the same hull as the Courbet and Provence classes but a mixed main armament of 12-inch and 9.4-inch guns.

In our alternative shipbuilding history, we’ve been careful to stay within the industrial and financial limits of each of these nations. Most of them did not lay down new ships during the years when these battleships would have been constructed, as they absorbed the lessons of the Dreadnought revolution. In this case, the revolution began in Italy, and the Mediterranean naval powers did not pause.

Given the naval arms race and the looming battleship war, we’ve also given history one more small tweak: a slightly faster pace of construction, and no letup with the onset of war. So new ships appear in the scenarios a little sooner than they joined their fleets in the history we all know. While the continued emphasis on battleship construction seems logically justifiable in a battleship war, it also allows us to let players play with their new battleships in the scenarios.

The scenarios follow a format similar to that in The Habsburg Fleet. We follow the naval side of the war for each month, charting the action with operational and battle scenarios, usually a couple of battle scenarios for every operational scenario. The Mediterranean fleets are more or less evenly matched and therefore much more active than their North Sea counterparts.

In the early scenarios, the Central Powers fleets are deployed as the Triple Alliance war plan specified: the Austrians at Augusta on the east coast of Sicily, the Germans at Messina, and the Italians at Naples. Messina could not service the combined fleets, Naples was felt to be too far from the Otranto Strait leading into the Adriatic and Austria-Hungary’s coastline, while Augusta likewise was too far from the Italian west coast. This arrangement would allow the Central Powers’ designated commander-in-chief, Austrian Admiral Anton Haus, to protect both Italian and Austrian interests and threaten those of the Allied powers.

The Allies had no matching war plan; in the scenarios the French are usually based at Bizerte and sometimes at Toulon, and the British at Malta. That sets up a pair of mirror-like confrontations: France against Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and Austria-Hungary against Britain in the Ionian Sea. But both sides have sea lanes to protect: the Italians do not wish to abandon their recent conquests in Libya, with Malta lying astride their line of communications. And the French must keep their routes to Algeria free of enemy raiders as well.

The story follows the four major fleets through the Great War at Sea in the Mediterranean, with minelaying expeditions, cruiser raids, bombardments, amphibious landings and major fleet battles. How it ends … well, you’ll need to read the book and play it.


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.