Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Naval War in the Mediterranean
reviewed by James M. Gallen

The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914–1918

by Paul Halpern
Oxon and New York, 2016

Battle of the Otranto Straits, 14/15 May 1917

The Great War was truly a first world war, the theaters of which extended far beyond mud and trenches, gas, and no man's land. The Naval War in The Mediterranean 1914–1918 presents the war in a different venue that, while literally a backwater, comes alive as author Paul Halpern describes its actions and personalities and places it in the context of the larger conflict.

The Great War in the Mediterranean was a three-dimensional swirl of air, land, surface and underwater combat. As in other theaters, national alliances shifted while officers competed for commands, savored credit for victories and dodged blame for defeats. The three principal conflicts depicted in the book are the Dardanelles Campaign, Adriatic threats by Austria-Hungary and Italy, and interdiction of commercial shipping.

Gallipoli, also known as the Dardanelles Campaign, captured my interest more than any other section. The attacks were intended to force the Turks out of the war, open supply routes to Russia, and ensure the protection of the Suez Canal. Whereas other histories focus on the land battles, this gives proper attention to the naval assaults that the British initially hoped would lead them to victory. When Greek distrust of Bulgaria and Russian designs on Constantinople derailed plans to have the Greek Army seize the Dardanelles, naval bombardment of Turkish fortifications was the next tactic chosen. Overestimates of the effects of flat trajectory naval gunfire against land targets and underestimates of Turkish resistance forced the Allies to turn to the beach landings.

The initial bombardment of the Turkish guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles commenced on 19 February 1915, and by 1 March the British were prepared to destroy the intermediate defenses and clear the minefields. As ships moved into the more restricted Straits and mines forced them off shore, the Turkish artillery became dominant. Russian decisions to confine their attacks to regions close to their own bases of supply scuttled hopes for assistance from their Black Sea Fleet. When sea power proved no more successful than the Greek Army or the Russian Fleet, the British Empire and French (motivated largely to maintain French influence in the Levant) sent troops into the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful assault on the beaches. The navy that failed to force the Dardanelles landed and, at the end, evacuated the troops, the latter being the most successful aspect of the whole campaign and providing a model for the heroic evacuation from Dunkirk during another war. Between those bookends the Western navies supplied the troops ashore while their submarines interdicted Turkish supplies to the Gallipoli Peninsula.

This work shines the spotlight on aspects neglected in other studies of the war, some of which fit into place once they are revealed. The Adriatic provided a highway across which Austro-Hungarian and Italian forces threatened to traverse to attack each other's homeland. The weakness of those two combatants was shown as they relied on their allies to supply and defend them. While Italy entreated Britain and France to divert vessels to Italian waters, Austria-Hungary was aided by the overland transport of submarines from Germany, some of which then sailed with German crews and under either German or Austrian-Hungarian flags. The Austro-Hungarian "Fleet in Being" kept larger Entente forces unavailable for other work as submarines sunk their enemies' maritime assets.

The Officers of U-35 Operating in the Mediterranean
Capt. Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (2nd from right) Was the 

Most Successful U-boat Commander of All Time

Entente, particularly British, merchant shipping paid a heavy toll in the Mediterranean in conjunction with the submarine war on the Atlantic. The concept of naval escort that grew into convoys was tested and experimented with in the Mediterranean. Just as boots on the ground supported spheres of influence so too did the allocation of patrol areas and apportionment of the naval work load. The global nature of the war is shown by the introduction of Japanese and American vessels into the Mediterranean. It was here that the first launch of a torpedo from an airplane occurred. Near the end, the Russian collapse and surrender set off a scramble between Russia, Ukraine, and Germany for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the response of Britain and France to a threat that never really materialized.

As its 630 pages would suggest, The Naval War in the Mediterranean is an extremely detailed book, expending much ink on the names of officers, few of which are as recognizable as that of Capt. von Trapp of "Sound of Music" fame, and ships and the details of engagements. I did learn new concepts about the strategies involved, the flow of the combat, and its effect on the larger war. A condensation of 50 percent or more would leave enough to satisfy a casual reader like myself. This is the definitive and thorough narrative for the expert in the field and would be of great interest to them.

James M. Gallen


  1. John Biggins wrote a delightful series of historical fiction about an Austrian-Hungarian U- Boat captain that gives you a good feel for the Mediterranean naval war.

  2. As a college student in the 1980's, I wrote a paper on the attempted return of the last Habsburg, Charles IV, to the Hungarian throne in the 1920's. Admiral Nicholas Horthy was the Regent of Hungary who thwarted his two attempts. The Nagybany had been the last Commander in Chief of the Austrian fleet. His memoir's account's of the naval war in the Adriatic, especially the 1917 Battle of the Otrantro Straights, where the Austrian fleet forced the entrance to the Mediterranean from the Adriatic for the Central Powers uboats using Adriatic ports as supply bases.

  3. The book by Robert K Massie, Dreadnaught, depicting the naval arms race of the early twentieth century kindled my interest in early twentieth century ships. I was amazed that people put so much faith in the expensive, large dreadnaught type battleships, especially after the filmed capsizing of the Hungarian Szent István, caused by an inexpensive, small Italian pat-type boat with a torpedo. I asked Mr. Massie about this once when he was on a book signing tour for his follow up book Castles of Steel, about how the English and German dreadnaugts actually performed at the only large naval battle of the war, Jutland. He said that it was too late in the war for people to really take notice.

  4. Sounds like a very useful book. Thank you for the review.

    I'm curious about how the "Austro-Hungarian "Fleet in Being" kept larger Entente forces unavailable for other work". Do we have a sense of how much of the French and British navies were drawn off by it?