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5: Naval Warfare in the Adriatic. The coronation of King Charles IV

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Naval Warfare in the Adriatic. The coronation of King Charles IV

From Sofronya, my brother-in-law's estate where my calling-up papers had reached me, I travelled to Vienna to report at naval headquarters. There I was given instructions to go on a special mission to His Majesty at Ischl. The next morning I was received in audience. Shortly after dinner, Prince Lobkowitz(1), Steward of the Household to the young heir apparent, Archduke Charles, came to the Hotel Elisabeth to request me to visit his master. The Archduke greeted me with the question, "Well, what's it going to be?"

"World war," I replied.

The Archduke thought that improbable. That very morning, Count Berchthold(2), the Foreign Minister, had assured him that the war was unlikely to spread and would therefore be restricted to a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. When I put forward the contrary view, based on incontrovertible grounds, he remarked that a world war would be terrible, with which comment I agreed. If only England would remain neutral, I said, we could deal with our other enemies.

At Pola, I took over the command of the Habsburg, the flagship of the Third Battleship Division. I have to confess that I was not happy about this particular command; the Habsburg was old, slow, and poorly armed. My first task, however, was the organization of the defences of our major naval harbour, with mines, nets, booms and similar devices.

Archduke Francis Ferdinand, to the gratification of the Navy, had advocated naval expansion, insisting that our Navy should not only be strong enough to defend our coasts but also to attack. In actual fact, the Austro-Hungarian Navy, on the outbreak of war, had not achieved that standard, hostilities having interrupted the building program. Adding to our difficulties was the fact that the excellent, natural harbour of Cattaro could not be utilized until Montenegro had been conquered, as it lay within range of the Montenegrin batteries on the Lovcen heights.

After the First World War, it leaked out that a secret naval agreement had been concluded in November, 1913, between the members of the Triple Alliance, providing for a concentration of the Austro-Hungarian, Italian and German units in the Naples-Messina-Augusta naval sector. A similar agreement had been concluded a few months before between England and France.

Italy's declaration of neutrality upset the plans of the naval staffs. The escape of the two cruisers Goeben and and Breslau from the hostile British and French fleets was due only to a successful maneuvre carried out by the German Vice-Admiral Souchon(3), who had received timely warning from our naval attaché in Rome. The cruisers took refuge in the Dardanelles and, according to a British view, the appearance of these two ships was instrumental in winning the Turks over to the side of the Central Powers.

At Pola, we prepared ourselves for an attack by superior enemy forces, an attack that was never made. A French submarine that succeeded in penetrating our minefields was caught in a steel net and brought in undamaged; later we were able to use it ourselves. British and French naval units made sporadic appearances in the south Adriatic, but after a successful submarine attack on the French flagship, such expeditions were discontinued as being too hazardous.

As early as November, my family was plunged into mourning by the first of its war losses. My younger brother Szabolcs had refused to remain at his post as chief commissioner of our county(4); in spite of protestations made to him by myself and by the Prime Minister, who considered his duties on the home front more important. He had volunteered as a lieutenant of Hussar reserves and had been killed in ambush on a reconnaissance mission in Poland.

Nothing frets the nerves more than forced inactivity at a time when everything calls for action. We at Pola were condemned for long periods to spend our time carrying out normal harbour duties. Fortunately, in December, I was unexpectedly appointed captain of the armoured cruiser Novara, which had just been completed at Fiume and which, being the fastest ship of our fleet, was intended for special assignments. This command improved my temper considerably.

Unfortunately, the trial trips of the Novara brought delay owing to engine-room trouble, probably due to sabotage during construction. I lost the chance of taking her to Smyrna as a blockade breaker to carry munitions to the Turks. They were short of everything on account of the the mining of the Danube by the Rumanians(5), which would have been the conventional shipping line. This blocade lasted until the conquest of Rumania in 1917.

The British landing at Gallipoli and the attempt to force the Dardanelles promised us action at last, and plans to assist our beleaguered allies were discussed. We were not prepared, of course, to risk our larger ships in the eastern Mediterranean, but what about submarines? Though, at that time, the penetration of the Straits of Gibraltar had not been attempted, the German Navy had been sending submarine parts to Pola by rail to be assembled there; we called them ocarinas. I was instructed to tow the U 8, commanded by Lieutenant von Voigt(6), if possible as far as Cape Matapan in order to save her using fuel in the Adriatic. I had the Novara metamorphosed in secret into a harmless-looking cargo-boat by means of wooden deck-houses, and on May 2nd we sailed from Pola. We passed successfully through the narrow Straits of Otranto but were sighted about a hundred nautical miles from Cape Matapan by a number of French battle-cruisers. I changed my course towards Patras to keep up the fiction that we were a cargo-boat. The French vessels came nearer and the U 8 had to be given orders to cast off and proceed on her own. She submerged. Meanwhile I had thrown off our camouflage and had hoisted the naval ensign. The French had forces concentrated at Corfu and these were given the alarm by wireless telegraphy so that it looked as if the Straits of Otranto would be closed from the opposite shore. However, we succeeded in breaking through to the north. The U 8 reached the Dardanelles and I returned to my home port. For this action I was awarded the Iron Cross. Later I read with much gratification in an English account of the war in the Mediterranean, The History of the Great War: Naval Operations (London, 1920), by Sir Julian Corbett(7), that in breaking through the blockade of Otranto twice we had considerably perturbed the British Admiralty and caused a redisposition of available forces.

Hardly had I returned to Pola, the Italian entry into the war created a new situation. Grand-Admiral Haus, the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, hoisted the signal 'Raise steam' from his flagship within half an hour of Italy's declaration of war. The plan of attack was prepared and all the captains had their orders in readiness. At 11 p.m., the whole Austro-Hungarian fleet sailed to launch an attack on the Italian east coast from Venice down to Brindisi. Our main task was to delay the Italian advance by disrupting the railway system along the Adriatic, thereby giving us time to move our troops to the frontier, where, at that moment, only a few battalions were stationed, leaving the road to Vienna open. As a result of our operation, the Italians, fearing a landing at Ancona and an attack on Rome in the rear of their armies, did halt their advance.

I was in command of the northernmost section of the fleet and, in the Novara, together with four torpedo-boats(8) and the destroyer Scharfschütze, attacked Porto Corsini. Suspecting the presence of submarines and motor-vessels in the canal linking Ravenna to the Adriatic, I sent the Scharfsütze in stern first. The Italian troops, who were, oddly enough, in trenches, made no move. About five in the morning, they showed themselves, full of curiosity, and an N.C.O. came and naively enquired, "Ma che cosa volete?" (What do you want?). Machine-guns soon made our wishes clear to him. After the Scharfsütze had performed her task of destroying the signal station, she steamed out of the canal, which is about three-quarters of a mile long, at a fair speed, running the gauntlet of a considerable fire, but the level of the canal was so low that she was not hit. The Italian batteries did succeed in placing a few hits on the Novara, and my courageous torpedo-officer Lieutenant Persich(9) and several sailors were killed. One of the torpedo-boats was damaged. I ordered her to come alongside, out of the line of fire, and with tarpaulins we sealed off the hole in her side so successfully that the Scharfsütze was able to tow her back to Pola. After this operation, the ships under my command set course for Trieste. I had instructions to attack the Italian squadron which was thought to be returning there from Venice. As our reconnaissance planes reported that not a ship had left Venice, I was recalled to join the main fleet, and returned with it to Pola.

The north Adriatic remained quiet, but in the south there was considerable activity, for the enemy was occupied in sealing the Straits of Otranto to prevent more U-boats from entering the Mediterranean. We discussed the situation and the Commander of the fleet ordered the Novara to the Bocche del Cattaro. Though remaining under the orders of the flotilla-commander, I kept full freedom of movement and to act largely on my own initiative. On the day I set out, I informed the flotilla commander of my intentions and asked for his support should it prove necessary. Secrecy was essential as the enemy had a well-organized spy system with a number of transmitters at its disposal which we had been unable to trace. From the moment that I gave the order to get up steam, all communication with the shore was forbidden, and only then did I acquaint my officers and men with my plans.

To ensure a crew being at its best in action, it has to be well fed and well rested. I had alarm bells fitted in every part of the ship which could be set off from the bridge by pressing a button. This I pressed only when the enemy came in sight, so that the crew could rest until the last moment.

Often I went 'stalking' without any particular aim, and, generally, had the luck to come upon game that showed fight or trawlers hunting U-boats with trailing nets. Before we sank them, we gave the crews warning to abandon ship. My gunners were so skilled that with a single shot they could explode the boiler, and down went the ship.

In our wartime Navy, all sea cadets and naval lieutenants who showed no particular aptitude for the work were transferred to the reserve so that they could seek careers more suited to them. At the outbreak of the war the general manager of a large factory joined up again, having been in the past at the top of his year in the naval college, though he had left soon afterwards. As an officer he proved useless, until by chance we discovered his aptitude for decoding enemy signals.

One afternoon, he came running along the alleyway of the Novara and rushed into my cabin to announce breathlessly that King Peter of Serbia was embarking that evening in an Italian destroyer at Durazzo for Brindisi. This followed upon the successful termination of the Serbian campaign, when the remnants of the Serbian Army had been forced to fall back into Montenegro and Albania. I wasted no time on questions but ordered steam to be got up immediately. Escorted by three torpedo-boats, I set out. There was no possibility of reaching Durazzo in time, but there was a good chance of intercepting the Italian destroyer. A stiff sirocco was blowing, whipping up quite a sea. As the sky was practically cloudless and the moon nearly at the full, visibility was excellent. For some hours, we cruised about on the Durazzo-Brindisi route without sighting a ship. Two days later, our information service reported that the King had indeed gone on board very punctually but had been so sea-sick that he had cancelled his voyage.

On another occasion, this decoder informed me that enemy signals had been referring repeatedly to a fleet that was to transport ordnance to Lovcen to replace the batteries that had been put out of action, together with arms, munitions and supplies for the Montenegrin and Serbian armies. He had been unable to ascertain the date of sailing, nor had he been able to discover the place of embarcation or the destination. On reflection, I decided that Durazzo was too far from Montenegro, Antivari too near the Bocche di Cattaro, so that the transport would probably call at San Giovanni di Medua, the Albanian harbour occupied at that time by the Serbs.

I asked the flotilla commander for four destroyers to escort the Novara in case of a surprise attack by superior enemy forces. With these, I set out at eleven o'clock one night on the off-chance, my main objective being to arrive at the harbour mouth unseen in the dusk(10). We knew that there was a battery of ten guns there. We hugged the rocky Albanian coast until we arrived at the breakwater. We could see a single-storied house, in which the gun-crews were probably asleep. One salvo sufficed to blow up the house and thereby put the battery out of action. With a beating heart, I advanced. Were we going to find anything there or not? When the view was clear, we saw, to our intense joy, a harbour full of ships; later we learned that they had arrived the night before. It was sheer luck! Had we come a day earlier, we should have found an empty harbour; a day later, and much of the cargo would have already been unloaded. After giving the crews time to leave their ships, I gave the order to open fire. One ship blew up, a second caught fire, a third sank soundlessly. A sailing ship was burning with a weird yellow light, she may have had a cargo of salt. We even succeeded in making something out of these cargo-boats, for by sinking one that was on fire, we quenched the flames. She was loaded with preserves, which were later salvaged by our troops and despatched to our army in Albania.

By the time we had finished our task, the shore batteries were beginning to wake up, but they were so poorly served that it was a full quarter of an hour before shells began to drop anywhere near us. By manoeuvring, we avoided being hit more than once during an hour and a half. That one shell struck the sick bay and deprived us of our excellent chief petty officer, who had been the captain of our naval football team and a very fine violinist.

Altogether, we sank twenty-three steamers and sailing ships, and were able to return home, again keeping close inshore, fully satisfied with our work. Only after the occupation of San Giovanni did we learn that there had been a triple screen of mines outside the harbour, and that it was owing to our sailing so close inshore that we had avoided disaster. Our operation proved a useful preparation for the assault on Lovcen in I916.

On the homeward voyage, the destroyer Warasdiner reported a stranded enemy submarine lying on a sandbank at the mouth of the Bojano. She turned out to be the French Fresnel. I sent one of my officers over to her in a launch to take the French crew off and to see what chance there was of refloating her. The latter proved impossible, as a torpedo had exploded in its tube and had torn the bows wide open. The crew refused to surrender until some shots had been fired. The French captain, Lieutenant R. Jouen, was very crestfallen. He had been lurking for weeks in those waters with no result, and he had at last run aground at the only point along the whole of that rocky coast where it was possible to do so. I consoled him as best I could.

Our prisoners were taken off in the Bocche di Cattaro and sent to camp. On the following day, our casualty and one of the Frenchmen who had died of injuries on board the Novara were buried with military honours, the French Tricolour on their coffins; the Frenchman had as many flowers as my own man. After the funeral, I gave Lieutenant Jouen my address and told him to write to me should there be anything he needed while he was a prisoner. I was able to provide him with French books later on.

After the First World War, I received two Paris journalists at the request of the French Ambassador. I was not in the habit of granting interviews to the press lightly, for journalists have a tendency to put words into one's mouth. The two Frenchmen, having agreed not to ask any catch-questions, asked for details about the loss of the Fresnel. A report was printed in Le Temps to which no objection could be taken other than that the Monge had been substituted for the Fresnel. The first officer of the Monge made a protest to Le Temps and ex-Lieutenant Jouen in reply pointed out that there had merely been a confusion of names in the first message. He took the trouble to stress the courteous treatment he and his men had received while in our hands. Alas, the Second World War failed to produce similar occurrences.

It was about this time that I had a job to do at Durazzo. As I was drawing near the harbour, I sighted clouds of smoke out at sea. I hugged the land and gave orders that our boilers should make as little smoke as possible, but we had already been observed and before long I could make out the approach of a British battleship and a fast cruiser. Though no larger than the Novara, they were more heavily armed, and I had no other course than to turn round. The cruiser, following a parallel course, opened fire from a distance so great that it would have been useless for us to reply in kind.

It was not pleasant to have to run away. But the slightest damage in the engine-room would have been enough to enable the battleship to overtake us and deal with us at her leisure, for a broadside from the Novara would have bounced off her like peas off a wall. I sent a wireless message with the short aerial, in English, to the cruiser, "If you want to fight, I am ready, but send away your big brother." She answered, "I would, but I can't." As the Novara was the swifter of the two, the battle was cut short. This exchange brought me a reprimand, even if smilingly given, on my return to Pola, for having parleyed with the enemy.

To my regret, I had to return to Pola to have my ship overhauled. This made an Allied 'Dunkirk' possible, for the defeated Serbian Army-some 134,000 men, according to the enemy, were evacuated from Durazzo to Corfu. I should not have cared to offer battle in a ship which had lost speed to the extent of four to five knots. But I had hoped to be back from Pola in time. The plan had been to join the probably numerous enemy ships during the hours of darkness as if I belonged to the convoy, place several torpedoes and then make off. Even had I been discovered, the risk would have been minimal, as the commanders of a unit consisting of ships of three nations would have hesitated to open fire for fear of hitting an ally.

Whenever I was at leisure in the mornings, I went ashore for exercise. On one of these walks, I saw to my surprise a regiment encamped in a clearing in the woods; hearing some words spoken in Hungarian, I made enquiries and was informed that it was a regiment from Szeged which had come over from the Isonzo front. Later I came upon two more Hungarian regiments. The Czech troops on the Bocche di Cattaro were being replaced, a sign that we were now in earnest.

Gun-sites were also being built for three mighty mortars which, on a January morning in 1916, began the bombardment of the Montenegrin batteries on the Lovcen heights. Our naval artillery was also brought into play. The battleships being heeled to gain higher aim for their heavy guns that thundered at the enemy fortifications. Our cruisers fired at the Montenegrin troops in the Zupa from out at sea and, after a few well-placed rounds, those troops were withdrawn.

Anyone who has climbed from Cattaro, or Kotor as the Yugoslavs call this town, following the splendid road which Austrian army engineers built, rising nearly to six thousand feet up the Lovcen heights to Cetinje, will be able to realize how difficult the conquest of that mountain was. It so happened that the attack was aided by heavy fog. Also, the most dangerous enemy batteries on the Kuck plateau had been silenced by our naval guns, their gun crews having been killed by exploding ammunition.

In the evening a fresh bora set in, scattering the mist. The mighty Lovcen stood there like a Christmas tree, camp-fires burning everywhere and our battle flag flew on the peak.

The gateway to the land of the Black Mountains had been forced. Our victorious troops swarmed across Montenegro, deep into Albania.

During the night of November 22nd, 1916, I was woken by the first officer with the news that His Majesty Emperor Francis Joseph I had breathed his last a few hours earlier. Against the advice of his doctors, he had spent all day at his desk and, when at last he retired, he had given orders to be called at half-past three, "for," he had said to his personal servant, "I have not been able to get through all the work."

The next morning, flags were flown at half-mast. I asked the Commander of the fleet for leave to attend the obsequies, a request I felt justified in making as the Novara was still being overhauled. Permission was granted, and I was therefore able to be present at the moving, majestic and sad ceremony in the Cathedral of St. Stephen and to accompany the coffin on its last journey to the Capuchin crypt. We were very conscious that one of the last great figures of a bygone age was being carried to his rest.

His Majesty Emperor Charles took over the government at one of the darkest periods of Austro-Hungarian history. With him came new men and the old guard disappeared. The new ruler was twenty-nine years old. His intentions were good but circumstances were against him. He was not destined to hold on to the heritage Emperor Francis Joseph left him.

My first meeting with the new monarch was many years old. He had been fourteen when I was presented to him by my brother, to whom Archduke Otto, Charles's father, had entrusted his training in horsemanship. At that time, my brother was riding-master in the military riding academy in Vienna, commander of the hunting division, and he had been, for seven years, Master of the Hounds. During the steeplechasing season, the Archduke would always visit him at Holics. I had frequently encountered Archduke Charles during my period of service as aide-de-camp, as his mother, the Archduchess Maria Josepha, had graciously issued many invitations to my wife and myself. Whenever Archduke Charles visited Pola, he sent for me. I was also in the company of Emperor Francis Joseph on the occasion of the Archduke's wedding to Princess Zita(11) of Bourbon-Parma. The Emperor had travelled to Schwarzau in order to tender his congratulations to the young couple personally. After the wedding breakfast, he had made Princess Zita Archduchess.

The coronation of the young ruler as King of Hungary in Budapest on December 30th, 1916, at which ceremony I was able to be present, was an unforgettable experience. The narrow streets of Buda, through which the procession wound, were decked with columns embellished with a variety of decorations, and from all flagstaffs flew the flags of Hungary, of the Houses of Habsburg and Parma, and of the city of Budapest.

Hungary was no doubt the only country in which the sovereign entered upon his full rights only after the coronation. This ceremony was a parliamentary procedure in which both Houses of Parliament participated. The coronation took place during the parliamentary session which was prorogued for the duration of the crowning. Hence, all members of the two Houses had to be present in the church. From early in the morning, the splendid equipages drove up to the Coronation Church of St. Matthias, the interior of which had been draped with red hangings. All the high dignitaries of the state were present as well as the Archdukes, the Papal Legate and King Ferdinand(12) of Bulgaria. The men wore uniform or Hungarian national costume, and the sunlight, falling on the stalls where the ladies sat, produced a sparkle and glitter as if the lid of a vast jewel casket had been raised.

From the Royal Palace the ceremonious procession drew near. A squadron of hussars rode ahead of the state carriages of the high dignitaries, which were followed in turn by the mounted Hungarian Guards, who presented a resplendent spectacle, the heron plumes in their shakos and their panther skins fluttering in the breeze. Then came the golden State Coach, in which were seated the King and Queen with their infant son and heir, Archduke Otto. After the religious ceremony, which closely followed the tradition of centuries, the actual crowning took place. First the King was anointed by the Prince Primate Csernoch; then the Prince Primate and the Lieutenant Palatine, the Premier Count Tisza, jointly placed the Holy Crown of St. Stephen on his head. The symbolic crowning of the Queen by touching her shoulder with the crown followed. The Queen and the heir to the throne then left the church to be driven back to the Palace in a glass coach drawn by eight Lipizzaners. The King remained to perform the first act of his kingship: conferring the accolade of Knighthood of the Order of the Golden Spur on twenty-four officers who had won distinction in the war.

With that act, the ceremony in the church was over, and the King mounted the steps of the Pillar of the Trinity outside the Church of St. Matthias, there to take the oath to the Hungarian constitution, wearing the ancient royal robe of Saint Stephen(13), on which the Queen, as tradition demanded, had sewn a few stitches the night before. After taking the oath, the King mounted his horse, his unsheathed sword in his right hand, his sceptre and bridle in the left. The coronation procession was formed anew, and the King was conducted to the Coronation Mound, composed of earth brought there from every county of Hungary. At the head were the hussars, then the mounted banner-carriers of all the counties of Hungary, that is to say, the dignitaries of the Hungarian realm, and, after them, the King. The Guard troops brought up the rear. On arriving at the Mound, the procession surrounded it as the King, alone and wearing the Holy Crown, galloped to the summit. There, while the grey stallion pranced on his hind-legs, the King swung his sword to south and west, to north and east, to signify that he would defend the land against enemies from every quarter. This symbolic act, which incidentally involved a fine feat of horsemanship, was accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of "Éljen!" ("Long Live") raised by the assembled multitude.

From the Coronation Mound, the King rode to the Palace, where the traditional coronation banquet was held at which Count Tisza proposed a toast to the prosperity of His Majesty, and the King to that of the Hungarian nation.

At this solemn moment, all hearts went out to the ruler. But all too soon the jubilation evaporated and cares weighed down the minds of the people. With anxious forebodings, I returned to the fleet in the Bocche di Cattaro.

The victories which the Central Powers were gaining on land and at sea, even after the coronation, were no longer sufficient to stem the tide of revolution and collapse.

1. General Prince Zdenko Lobkowitz (1858-1933), Charles IV's chief military aide.

2. Count Leopold Berchtold (1863-1942).

3. Wilhelm Anton Souchon (1864-?).

4. Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County.

5. Submitting to growing French pressure, following a secret treaty signed in Bucharest on August 17 in which the French promised most of eastern Hungary to Rumania after the war, Rumania initiated a surprise attack Austria-Hungary on August 27, 1916, and occupied southern Transylvania. Counter-attacking Austro-Hungarian and German forces under general Falkenhayn cleared the country of Rumanian forces by October 13, and occupied Bucharest on December 6. Rumania was kept under occupation for two years.

6. German Navy Lt. Ernst Voigt.

7. Sir Julian Stafford Corbett (1857-1922), British military historian.

8. WW1 version of the PT boat.

9. Lt. Emil Persich von Köstenheim (1885-1915).

10. Astonishingly, Horthy's original battle report (Novara #796; Dec. 5, 1915) still exists. (Csonkaréti, K. : Horthy, the Seaman, Budapest: Zrinyi, 1993, in Hung.)

11. Princess Zita Maria Adelgunda of Bourbon-Parma (1892-1989).

12. Tsar Ferdinand I of Koburg (1861-1948).

13. This and the rest of the coronation regalia is presently on display in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

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