French and Italian Naval Policy in the Mediterranean, 1898–1945
There are certain inescapable geographical facts that govern French and Italian naval policy in the Mediterranean. France has an extensive coastline outside the Mediterranean and the great bulk of the Iberian peninsula separates French ports on the Atlantic and Channel coasts from those in the Mediterranean.1 Therefore the French cannot be indifferent to naval developments in northern waters and, however great French interests in the Mediterranean might be, French policy in the middle sea must of necessity be affected by developments outside it. At the beginning of the period under review the French faced the major dilemma in the north of possible enmity with the naval giant Great Britain in the crisis over Fashoda in 1898. The naval forces of France’s major continental ally Russia were also likely to play only a little role in the Mediterranean. Again this is due to geography, the Baltic fleet was distant, obliged to pass the narrow bottle neck of the Sound to get from the Baltic to the North Sea and then obliged to pass the British Isles before beginning the long voyage southward. The Russian Black Sea fleet was also hampered by geography, shut in the Black Sea and precluded by treaties from passing through the Straits. France would probably have to rely on itself in the Mediterranean. The contingency of Great Britain as a friend rather than an enemy came with what must have seemed like startling speed in the early years of the twentieth century, but by this time a new danger appeared in the north with the growth of the German Navy which would soon surpass the French. The French in the Mediterranean could never escape from casting one eye over their shoulder at their dangerous German neighbor. At the same time, their Italian neighbor would grow to be a dangerous rival, at least formally linked to another new threat - the Austro-Hungarian Navy. The latter disappeared forever in 1918 but the Italian Navy remained a rival, even when formally allied during the
World War and in the post-war period demanded ‘parity’, a demand recognized at the 1921 Washington Naval Conference. Relief from the potential threat of the German Navy also proved to be only temporary. Even before the advent of Hitler, German naval developments under the restrictions of the Versailles Treaty were enough to alarm the French and at the very least had to be answered.