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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

But not until later with Persano


At

this time Napoleon III of France had already undertaken mediation between the hostile powers. In spite of the orders of June 8, quoted above, which seem sufficiently definite, and urgent orders to the same effect later, Persano was unwilling to take the offensive, and kept complaining of lack of clear instructions as to what he should do. He was later convicted of cowardice and negligence; but the campaign he finally undertook against Lissa was dangerous enough, and it seems possible that some secret political maneuvering was partly responsible for his earlier delay.[1]

[Footnote 1: In July Persano wrote to the Deputy Boggio: "Leave the care of my reputation to me; I would rather be wrongly dishonored than rightly condemned. Patience will bring peace; I shall be called a traitor, but nevertheless Italy will have her fleet intact, and that of Austria will be rendered useless." Quoted in Bernotti, IL POTERE MARITTIMO NELLA GRANDE GUERRA, p. 177.]

It is significant at least that the final proposal to make a descent upon the fortified island of Lissa came not from Persana but from the Minister of Marine. On July 15 the latter took up the project with the fleet chief of staff, d'Amico, and with Rear Admiral Vacca, but not until later with Persano. All agreed that the prospect of a truce allowed no time for a movement against Venice or the Austrian base at Pola, but that they should strike a swift stroke elsewhere.

Lissa commanded the Dalmatian coast, was essential to naval control in the Adriatic, and was coveted by Italy then as in later times. It would be better than trying to crush the enemy fleet at the risk of her own if she could enter the peace conference with possession of Lissa a _fait accompli_.

Undertaken in the face of an undefeated enemy fleet, this move has been justly condemned by naval strategists. But with a less alert opponent the coup might have succeeded. Tegetthoff, the Austrian commander, was not yet 41 years of age, but had been in active naval service since he was 18, and had led a squadron bravely in a fight with the Danes two years before off Heligoland. He had his heterogeneous array of fighting craft assembled at Pola at the outbreak of war. "Give me everything you have," he told the Admiralty when they asked him what ships he wanted; "I'll find some use for them." His crews were partly men of Slav and Italian stock from the Adriatic coast, including 600 from Venice; there is no reason for supposing them better than those of Persano. The influence of their leader, however, inspired them with loyalty and fighting spirit, and their defiance of the Italians at Ancona on June 27 increased their confidence. When successive cable messages from Lissa satisfied him that the Italian fleet was not attempting a diversion but was actually committed to an attack on the island, Tegetthoff set out thither on July 19 with his entire fighting force. His order of sailing was the order of battle. "Every captain knew the admiral's intention as well as the admiral himself did; every officer knew what had to be done, and every man had some idea of it, and above all knew that he had to fight."[1]


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