Crisis in the Mediterranean: Naval Competition and Great Power Politics, 1904–1914 (RCAF Journal - WINTER 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 1)

Cover of Crisis in the Mediterranean: Naval Competition and Great Power Politics, 1904–1914

By Jon K. Hendrickson

Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014
219 pages
ISBN 978-1-61251-475-8

Review by Major Chris Buckham, CD, MA

The world of today is so radically different from that of pre-First World War that it is difficult to even appreciate the challenges and concerns that nations of that period faced as they struggled with international relations. Central to this, the Mediterranean Sea represented for many nations a key transport and security concern as well as a common border between many of the (then) world’s leading powers: Italy, France, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro–Hungarian Empire. Each of these powers had its own agenda and vision of the region, which in many cases were at odds with their neighbours’ desires. Hendrickson’s book traces the convoluted lines of international naval diplomacy between the nations of the Mediterranean during the period 1904–1914. It reinforces the fact that the consistent underlying themes in international relations are that nations are never altruistic in their dealings with each other and that these relationships are nothing if not flexible.

Crisis in the Mediterranean starts with a synopsis of the environment and a history of the region in order to set the tone as well as to provide a starting point from which to move forwards. The author then takes a chronological approach to the period and focuses each chapter on a specific component of the interactions. His contention is that the natural state of affairs for the Mediterranean is anarchistic with no player clearly holding a dominant position for an extended period of time; thus, the British presence, controlling the Mediterranean for the last quarter of the 19th century, was a deviation from and not the norm. The starting point for the book’s narrative is 1904, when the British recognize that they are no longer able to retain their naval hegemony in the Mediterranean. This has a series of knock-on effects for them, including but not limited to: their ability to retain influence over the Ottomans; the requirement for additional ground forces in order to retain control of their territories in Malta, Egypt and Gibraltar; and the necessity to proactively seek allies with whom to share the burden of “presence.”

Hendrickson then goes on to trace and analyse the key milestones that delineated the relations between the international players as the Med came into play once again. Thus, chapters are assigned for the rise of the navies of Italy and the Austro–Hungarian Empire during their war scare between 1909 and 1911, their ultimate rapprochement and the impact that this had on their strength in the Mediterranean. Following this, the decision by the Italians—bolstered by their confidence in their relations with Austria–Hungary and desirous of a greater influence in Med affairs—to invade Libya is discussed. The unanticipated impact of this invasion was profound for Italy’s relationship with both the Alliance countries (Germany, Austria–Hungary and Italy) and France. He then looks to the reaction of Britain and France to these unfolding events and how the international situation with Germany forced Britain to adopt agreements that were counter to its natural inclinations. The author goes on to shed light on the deepening relationship between Italy and the Alliance as a result of the reaction of the Entente nations (Britain, France and, eventually, Russia) to Italy’s expansionism. He then closes the main narrative with discussion of the strategic impact that the 19th Corps had on France’s war plans. Composed of the most hardened and battle-experienced soldiers in the French arsenal, the 19th Corps was stationed in Algeria and needed to be transported to France in order to fulfil its role in the Western campaign plan. The importance of this unit to France and the Entente is underscored by Hendrickson dedicating his final chapter to how France and Britain grappled with this problem.

Hendrickson masterfully balances technical analysis of fleet capabilities with a broader study of the operational and strategic implications of the political manoeuvrings being undertaken by the key players. His narrative style is clear and concise; it facilitates an easy understanding of the complex issues that face the different dancers at the “Med Ball.” Hendrickson includes a synopsis of the events covered at the end of each chapter, and for further research, there is a comprehensive bibliography. A fascinating, thoroughly researched and outstanding book, Crisis in the Mediterranean provides an in-depth look at the role of Italy and Austria–Hungary in the lead up to the First World War, a topic that is normally overlooked with the coverage of the German–British naval race and the emphasis placed on armies.

Major Chris Buckham is an air logistics officer presently posted to the International Peace Support Training Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. He maintains a professional reading blog at

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