The Austro-Hungarians at war
The war broke out because of the Balkans, the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was followed by a rejected inquiry by Austro-Hungarian authorities to Serbia, followed by a rejected ultimatum and war. By the alliances game, Serbia had the support of its natural ally Russia, which in turn could count on France. In response, Austria-Hungary was able to count on the German Empire for backup. But the first engagements of the Austro-Hungarian Army against Serbia, despite clear advantages, was nothing of a promenade. The Serbs managed to block and even repel the initial attacks with massive payback.
Situation in the Adriatic
On the naval front however it was expected from the K.u.K Kriegsmarine to take advantage of a clear cut superiority in the Adriatic. At that stage, the Austro-Hungarian Navy was not to be taken lightly with three brand new dreadnoughts (a fourth in achievement), 12 pre-dreadnought battleships, 13 cruisers, 27 destroyers and 79 torpedo-boats, as well as 7 submarines and many monitors and auxiliary ships of all sizes and tonnage. It was based mostly in Pola harbour and could easily defeat a very weak Montenegrin navy (perhaps a single gunboat, no info could be found) whereas the Serbian “navy” only counted a single patrol boat Jadar, based on the Danube in 1915. Since Italy was neutral, and perhaps then more inclined to join the central powers, Austro-Hungary has free hands in this “private lake” bordering the Balkans. In the Mediterranean however, this was another matter.
Austro-Hungarian Dreadnoughts and the fleet anchored at Pola. Despite real assets, from 1915, it was dwarfed by the combined might of the French, British and Italian navies and mostly condemned to inaction, trapped in the Adriatic.
At that time, since June 6, the proportion of the French fleet in the Mediterranean was such that the British thought fair to let the supreme naval command in the area to the French, the British naturally receiving supreme command of the Allied naval forces for the north sea. Thus, by treaty on June 6, the Royal Navy there was reduced to two armored cruisers (Defence and Warrior) and some light cruisers after by massive transfers to the North Sea,theoretically under the orders of Admiral Boué Lapeyrière. The latter, from the outset of the declaration of war, rallied Malta with the combined forces, then joined the Adriatic by executing an ostensible “naval review” in full strength and regalia to impress still undecided Italians.
On August, 14 the French fleet enters the Adriatic included 15 battleships (2 Courbet, 6 Danton and 5 Vérité), 6 armored cruisers (3 Léon Gambetta, Quinet, Renan, Michelet) and smaller cruisers. It was followed by British-armored cruisers from Gibraltar, the squadron of Admiral Troubridge. Alerted, the Austro-Hungarian fleet scrambled to rally in emergency the safe harbor of Pola. But Zenta had not been informed, and was still conducting operations of shelling of the small Antivari harbour.
She was safeguarded by destroyer Uhlan and 2 others. None did noticed the Courbet, a recently built dreadnought which opened fired at 20 000 m range. Soon 305 mm plumes squared the Zenta, which had no artillery capable of replicate at such distance. In very little time, the Zenta was severely hit, immobilized, and rendered all but helpless and burning. Her crew evacuated the soon-to-be hulk on rafts. The Destroyer Uhlan and two destroyers managed to flee thanks to their speed. The Zenta sank in a short time, but most of its crew safely joined the coast.
A painting of the battle of Antivari, by Harry Heusser, 1914.
This modest setback meant that the allies could now roam at will the Adriatic, blocking all the Austro-Hungarian initiatives. Initially at least, French presence dissuaded the naval forces stationed at Pola to start new coastal raids. But soon the allied forces departed and would be fully absorbed by operations in the Dardanelles. The Austro-Hungarian was then again free and ready for any action but only for a short time: Italy entered the war at about the same time. We will return on this chapter of the adriatic naval campaign soon. The “inaction” ended with a first major action Battle in Decemlber 1915, the battle of Durazzo, followed by by the Battle of the Strait of Otranto in 14-15 may 1917.
The Austro-Hungarian fleet
The cruiser Zenta in 1914.