A Fleet In Being: The Austro-Hungarian Fleet Of World War I, by Russell Philips
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by the author in exchange for an honest review.]
As the third book I have read by this author , there are some patterns that are clearly evident in this work that are present in the other books I have read. For one, this book deals with naval history (like much of the history about the Falklands War in another book of his), and for another this book is a collection of the naval vessels of the Austro-Hungarian fleet of 1914-1918, a subject so obscure that the last time I thought of it was when I last pondered the back story of retired naval captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music or Admiral Horthy’s escapades as the Regent of Hungary. Like his other books, the title of this book prompts questions that the book briefly answers, but without a great deal of detail. It is important to remember that the Austro-Hungarian navy is obscure (despite the fact that it had some important victories in the 1800’s, including the Battle of Lissa in 1866) largely because for much of its history it was a fleet in being, whose purpose was to survive, and not a fleet in doing (like the United States Navy, the Imperial Japanese Navy, or of course, the Royal Navy) whose job consisted in doing something. During World War I, the task of the Austro-Hungarian Navy was to survive, so as to draw off the Mediterranean fleets of Italy, France, and Great Britain and make life easier for the German navy elsewhere. Since this small and largely obsolete navy did manage to survive largely intact until the end of World War I, and since Mediterranean patrol took a much larger amount of Triple Entente ships than the Austro-Hungarian Empire had, this mission may be termed a success.
The contents of this book are straightforward and more than a little melancholy. For a fleet in being, this book, which divides up the Austro-Hungarian fleet by class of ship, from dreadnaught battleships to pre-dreadnaught battleships to cruisers, submarines, torpedo boats, and even yachts, a large part of this fleet was never in existence beyond plans on the paper. The author spends a lot of time here, as he did in looking at the United States army and its equipment, in looking at questions of procurement. Here, this is explicitly tied to a political agenda, namely that the Hungarian part of the Dual Monarchy held the German half hostage, requiring expensive and time-consuming construction in the Hungarian part of the empire, with inexperienced Hungarian firms profiting from the procurement, rather than acting the most efficiently by having Germans in the Empire or in Germany do the construction. Here political realities—namely the need to obtain Hungarian support for naval expenditures—trumped the commonsensical understanding that with powerful expected enemies in the Mediterranean, that Austria needed some kind of navy to protect its borders from amphibious assault. As it was, naval expenditures were so grudging and so paltry that people won contests to design various capital ships, but no money or skilled crews could be found to turn many of those ship plans into actual warships.
Perhaps what is most melancholy about this book is the way that ship after ship is discussed in the same sort of painful epitaph for anyone who must have cared about the Austro-Hungarian Navy, and that is that ship after ship was sold to a given nation, like Greece or Romania or Italy, where it was not seized by Britain or France, and was sold for scrap. A navy that had been built up over decades, and one with a worthwhile, if somewhat obscure history, became scrap metal for the victorious nations of the Entente. Surely there can be few tasks more melancholy than writing the history of navies for what are now landlocked nations, but this book’s title has layers upon layers of irony. Not only was the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s navy a navy largely focused on being and not doing (its last great mission was canceled because Admiral Horthy thought it had been compromised when one of the battleships was sunk), not only did a lot of its potential strength never exist because of economic and political realities, but after World War I, the navy no longer existed at all. What had been a fleet in being, and one that spent a lot of effort to remain afloat and relevant in the face of fierce combat, then ceased to be at all, and ceased to be remembered except as a trivia question. What fate is sadder than massive effort followed by total oblivion? At least this book, and those who read it, will remember the Austro-Hungarian Navy, even if few people do these days.
See, for example: