The bay of Kotor (wikipedia)

Mutiny of Sailors at the Bay of Cattaro

It is still debated exactly what has happened, but it is known about the greatest revolt of the Monarchy’s navy that in Hungary it was usually remembered reluctantly or in the wrong way – in many cases wrongly involving Horthy. However, in the South Slavic countries, experts have been extensively concerned with the mutiny of sailors even today.

“The king issued a supreme manuscript, giving mercy to the 348 sailors not yet convicted who participated on the mutiny at Cattaro on February 28 this year”, wrote the paper Dunántúl on October 19, 1918 in the report dated with the previous day and in Vienna. This shot news was the first to report on an event that did not actually happen on February 28, but between February 1-3, 1918, and that had been hardly seen in the press: the mutiny at Cattaro.

The mutiny happened on the second largest naval base of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, at the Bay of Kotor, now in Montenegro, named at that time the Bay of Cattaro. This was the station of one-third of the shared naval force, and in early 1918, six thousand sailors were stationed at the bay.

 Cattaro: concealment and distortion

Following the outbreak of the mutiny in February 1918, a ban on news was ordered, while today only a few lines are dedicated in Hungarian summaries on the First World War. The mutiny was not mentioned in the Horthy era either by Lajos Győri when writing about the history of the navy. The Horthy counter-cult after 1945 falsified the history of the riot, stating that the mutiny was crushed by Horthy. However, we know from Dávid Turbucz’s book that Horthy, injured in the battle at Otranto in 1917, “was appointed to be the commander of the Prinz Eugen battleship”, thereby he could not participate in the defeat of the mutiny at Cattaro, “since he was in Pola in early February”.

While comprehensive Hungarian war summaries hardly write about Cattaro, the website of the Slovenian state television includes Rok Omahen’s detailed summary of the mutiny in the series on the First World War. In the former Yugoslavia, even a film was made in 1980, entitled Kotorski mornari (Sailors at Kotor). In Hungary, László Merényi’s book, published in 1984, entitled A cattarói matrózfelkelés (The mutiny of sailors at Cattaro) provides the most detailed description of the riot, and though his viewpoint is not always entirely objective even under the circumstances of the era (especially when Horthy is mentioned), his data are more reliable than that of some earlier propagandistic publications.

The mutiny at Cattaro – just like any events with the participation of six thousand people that is quickly interrupted, i.e. the events cannot be looked at from a historical perspective – cannot be centred on one ideological guiding line. So the mutiny, which was only a few days long, is repeatedly reinterpreted, with changes even in space and time.

Cattaro will probably be always more important for South Slavic peoples than for any other country. It will also be more appealing for left-wingers than right-wingers, who would rather belittle the event. The Germans were concerned for a while with the fact that they disciplined a significant pat of the fleet of the disintegrating monarchy with two submarines. However, as time goes by, ideological distortions and falsified information can be increasingly filtered from earlier historical works.

Some wanted to depict the mutiny as a left-wing Socialist riot, forgetting that rebels even organized a mass on the ships (though it was interrupted by the actions of the coast guard, therefore did not take place). Others point out ethnic conflicts and – an American historian – the role of Wilson’s 14 points. They mention that as an event preceding the mutiny, on October 15, 1917, the crew of a smaller torpedo boat of the Monarchy decommissioned their officers, crossed the Adriatic and surrender to the Italians. A third group emphasizes the tension between officers and the crew, the difficulties in supply and the demoralization of sailors.

Reality is presumably the combination of these factors, but the most significant reason was the sailors’ wish for peace, which was at that time intertwined with the general strike wave shaking the entire Monarchy in January 1918. And directly with the walkouts at the ports of Pola and Trieste in late January and early February. The strength of their desire for peace is well shown by the fact that in 1918 a sailor in Cattaro was in service for the eighth year in a row!

Why did no one disclose the news on the mutiny in early 1918?

News of the mutiny at Cattaro between 1 and 3 February reached the opposition Social Democrats in Vienna a week later. However, their leaders, Viktor Adler and Karl Seitz kept the news secret. Consultations started with Stöger-Steiner Minister of War on February 2, and – to have no more casualties in addition to the four rebels who had already been executed – they promised to keep the news of the mutiny secret, as written by László Merényi. However, the summary court decided on the execution of “only” four people originally too, so the Minister did not really have to make a concession.

The “normal’ court hearing on the sailor mutiny started on September 16, 1918 – after more than half a year following the summary procedure. The censorship office wrote a circular note on this day: newspapers may only publish official communications about the procedure. However, it also meant that the case has become public.

Paradoxically, the Entente did not report on Cattaro either, scattered news appeared in papers only months later. The reason for this was that the three rebels who escaped Cattaro by plane – the Dalmatian nationalist Anton Sesan cornet, and some original proponents of the mutiny, Gustaw Stonawski and the Polish (or pursuant to other sources, Ukranian) pilot, Anton Grabowiecki, were mistaken for Bolsheviks and imprisoned for months by the Italians. The Entente feared that the Bolshevik movement would spread to the West. Eventually, influenced by Yugoslavian emigrants, Sesan and his comrades were freed, but by that time they sought to depict the mutiny as an ethnic action.

What happened at Cattaro?

The so-called Sailor Committee was presumably formed in the days preceding the mutiny. Its members included Franz Rasch, the Austrian Hugo Sagner, the already mentioned Stonawski and Grabowiecki. They “decided on the starting time of the mutiny” on January 31, as written by the Hungarian author duo, Hetés–Dezsényi. However, according to the Slovenian Omahen, preparations had been made in Cattaro for a month. According to Merényi, the strike wave, involving the entire Monarchy, was learnt about at Cattaro on January 20.

Hetés and Dezsényi describe the outbreak of the riot as follows: „on the morning of February 1, it was reported to Hansa Rear Admiral, the commander of the squadron” that a riot is expected on the ships Sankt Georg, Gäa and Helgoland. So the “kommandatura essentially did not know anything, they could only anticipate the events from chance remarks and the tense mood.” According to Merényi, Hansa did not let officers carry a weapon to prevent the crew from being provoked.

At 12 p.m., Sankt Georg fired cannon shots; this was the signal for the other ships stationed in the bay. Hungarian authors attribute it to a Hungarian sailor. However, Slovenians point to a Slovenian sailor, who signalled for launching the action within the ship. Whatever the case, Hetés and Dezsényi wrote the following: “the officers were having lunch, the ship orchestra, which usually played the anthem at noon, now took up a stand on the stern of the ship, and was playing Marseillaise. The sailors covered the deck while shouting “Friede”, “Pace”, “mir”, “békét”. The officer in charge of guarding was forced back to the lower deck, just like officers trooping out from the restaurant”.

The sailors gradually took over power on the other ships as well: the officers were mostly disarmed, detained, and the red flag was raised. In the afternoon, they formed their central council, and elected Franz Rasch ship master as the head. Károly Csonkaréti also writes about the role of the Croatian Anton Grabar, who negotiated with Hansa Rear Admiral after the outbreak of the mutiny. In addition to him, two Croatian sailors are mentioned as key figures by almost all adaptations: Jerko Šižgorić and Mate Brničević.

The rebels primarily allowed the captive Hansa to keep contact with the supreme command without control, so the ships ensuring the decisive supremacy of the navy two days later at Cattaro could leave Pola quickly.

However, the sailors did not achieve their fundamental purpose: while Hansa Rear Admiral could calmly communicate with the supreme command, they could not get in touch with the outside world. They thought they could revolutionize Vienna and Budapest, but at least Mostar and Zagreb, but the mutiny remained unresponsive. The rebels were completely isolated by the military leadership: the long-range radio station was destroyed, the telegrams were not transmitted, the residents of the bay were evacuated, the land-based troops who were urgently commanded there were misinformed about the purpose of their mission.

In Cattaro, there was a moment during the mutiny when, according to Merényi, 40 military ships raised the red flag, which represented a considerable force. However, on many ships, officers retained their influence and raised the flag only under compulsion. On smaller torpedo boats even the crew did not necessarily identify themselves with the purposes of the mutiny. The artillery controlling the bay did not join the revolt either.

What did the rebels want?

In the Kadar era, the mutiny of sailors at Cattaro was mentioned as – the better-sounding – uprising. According to Merényi, the reason was that it was a deliberate move, which also had a political program: sailors primarily wanted peace. However, Soviet-Russian events also influenced them. Point #3 of the rebels declared: “Based on the Russian democratic proposal, peace without annexation and compensation.” Wilson’s 14 points, disclosed a few weeks earlier, – raising the right of self-determination of peoples to the level of international and great power politics –, also influenced the sailors, whose points #5 and #6 were concerned about the right of self-determination of peoples and the “honest” response to Wilson’s list.

Nevertheless, the sailors did not want to disintegrate the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, next to the raised red flag, they also left the red-white-red flag of the imperial and royal navy on the ships, but Point #7 demanded: “Democratic governments in Austria and Hungary.”

The uprising seemed to be successful at first, but over time the cohesiveness of sailors weakened. In the beginning they could stop ships that wanted to break out of the range of the uprising. Later, however, they could not decide whether they should shoot cannons to the ones trying to escape.

Franz Rasch prevented the fire duel between the rebel ships and the coastal artillery too. Meanwhile, Sesan cornet suggested in vain that they should switch over to the Entente, the sailors could not or did not want to sail to the open sea – besides the lack of proper naval knowledge, they might have been led by some loyalty to the emperor too, but we will never know for sure.

Meanwhile, the land-based military leadership concentrated increasing forces on the shore of the bay. This is when Cattaro, protected by several fortresses, became a trap for the rebels, who could not escape, since two submarines closed the sea exit. One of the rebel ships, Rudolph was even fired from coastal cannons; that is when an organizer of the uprising, the Austrian Sagner died.

The collapse of the uprising

The Novara’s commander, Prince Liechtenstein noticed the uncertainty of the central management of the uprising and the sailors on his ship – Novara would have been led by Horthy if he had not got injured at the battle of Otranto in 1917. Liechtenstein ordered the arming of the torpedoes of the light cruiser and called his sailors for leaving the ship. Thus the supporters of the uprising left, and went to the centre of the mutiny, Sankt Georg.

The Novara threatened the old Sankt Georg, which was not prepared for avoiding a torpedo attack. Liechtenstein was seemingly under the red flag, but on the second day of the mutiny, it set forth to the inner bay of Cattaro. This was a risky step, since flags moving under this flag could have been attacked by the coastal force – led by Oskar Guseck von Glankirchen General of Artillery.

However, Liechtenstein avoided coastal cannons (partly because they were firing on the Rudolph) and, reaching the safe inner bay, lowered the red flag. Thereby he separated from the rebels who were mostly in the outer bay. The Novara was joined by more and more cruisers (Helgoland, Warasdiner, Dinara) as well as torpedo boats and the destroyers named Tátra and Huszár.

As the power of the uprising weakened, the sailors made serious concessions. Guseck General of Artillery sent them an ultimatum, based on which they modified their conditions, renouncing their major political demands, and primarily requested a guarantee for impunity.

According to Paul G. Halpern American historian, the collapse occurred  on the third day “when the three battalions belonging to the Erzherzog class arrived to strengthen the power of the supreme command”. In the convoy led by Seidensacher Rear Admiral, four destroyers and even more torpedo boats arrived from Pola, which decided the balance of power. Seeing the superior forces, the rebels lowered the red flags and surrendered on February 3 without any major clashes.

Afterwards 40 people were brought before summary court by Guseck General of Artillery. Four main organizers (Rasch, Grabar, Šižgorić and Brničević) were executed. In addition, Franz Bajžel and the Hungarian Lajos Székács were sentenced to ten as well as five years of imprisonment.

Eight hundred participants of the mutiny at Cattaro were held in captivity for months. In May 1918, around four hundred of them were freed for lack of evidence. “Further investigation was ordered against 379 defendants”, as Merényi wrote. In his opinion, among the people involved in the more regulated court proceedings that started months after the summary procedure and executions, there were “170 South Slavs, 80 Italians, 49 Czechs, 42 Germans, 31 Hungarians, 3 Poles, 2 Ukrainians and 2 Romanians”. This fact is supported by Croatian data as well, stating that 48 pecent of the defendants was South Slavic, 20 percent was Italian, 13 persent was Czech and Slovakian, 8 percent was Hungarian.

The sailor mutiny at Cattaro brought about changes in the life of several actors. Miklós Horthy was out of turn promoted and appointed as (a) leader of the Austro-Hungarian navy, a fleet commander. According to Hetés and Dezsényi, among militants who were active during the Hungarian Soviet Republic, “the revolutionary sailor brigade, the protectors of the dictatorship of the proletariat, some Lenin boys got started in part from Cattaro”. However, there was hardly such an example among Lenin boys pursuant to the latest research results: Gergely Bödők’s 2016 study found only two sailors among them when analysing the profession of the almost 400 members of the armed forces.

The paper Dunántúl reported on the aftermath of the uprising on October 27. A defence lawyer referenced the mercy for sailors at Cattaro upon the military riot in Pécs in May 1918: „”The king, with his highest grace toward the sailors rioting at Cattaro, gave mercy to the rebel sailors. Today Jenő Karcag, dr. military defence attorney asks for mercy for the rebellious crew of the 6th common regiment stationed in Pécs”.

The rebellion in Pécs involved more serious fights than the one in Cattaro: the armed forces made up mainly of Serbs were defeated in almost regular battles by the military forces made up mainly of Hungarians. Though it was less bloody, Cattaro has become much more legendary. In addition to concealments and distortions, a role may have been played by the fact that the sailors wishing for peace managed to gain control over a significant part of the monarchy’s navy – even if only for a few hours, a few days.

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Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő