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19th Century Austro-Hungarian Forts in Montenegro

 A recent trip to Montenegro was an opportunity to study some fairly well preserved examples of 19th Century Austro-Hungarian fortresses.


During the Napoleonic Wars, Montenegro was much smaller than the modern state, confined to the mountains around the old capital Cetinje. The coast, including the strategically important Bay of Kotor (Cattaro), was dominated by the Venetians. With the fall of Venice, the Austrian’s were the beneficiaries, occupying most of the Dalmatian coast. However, after their defeat in 1805 they were forced to hand over the Bay of Kotor to the French. This lasted until 1813 when a British naval force, supported by the Montenegrins, captured Kotor and the other main towns. Sadly for the Montenegrins, their Russian allies did not secure them a reward for their efforts on the coast and the Habsburg Empire gained possession of the Kotor region until its fall in 1918.

The Austrian’s recognised the strength of Kotor and developed it as their main naval base in the southern Adriatic. There are several bays off the narrow entrance and mountains surround Kotor itself, resembling a Norwegian fjord. The weakness of the position is that the Montenegrins held the high ground inland and Austrian diplomatic efforts were aimed at securing the Mount Lovcen region. Whilst these efforts failed, the Montenegrin’s shortage of heavy guns and modest armed forces did not constitute a major threat. On this basis the Austrian’s fortified the entrance to the bay from naval attack, and their hills around Kotor from land attack. 

 Naval Forts 

There are three forts guarding the bay. On the modern day Montenegro coast near Zanjica Bay there is Fort Arza. On the opposite coast in modern day Croatia, although this is disputed territory, there is Fort Prevlaka. Finally, on an island in the channel there is Fort Mamula. The other island in the picture below houses an Orthodox monastery. Probably just as well that the forts never came under fire! 

 The forts were built under the direction of General Lazar Mamula in the mid-19th century. While the forts all look different, they appear to have a similar primary function of providing a semi-circular gun platform for 210mm cannon. Although they never fired a shot in action, the Italians used Fort Mamula as a prison in WW2.

You can view the forts from Zanjica Bay on the Lustica Peninsula. You can walk to Arza from there and hire a boat to get out to Marmula. There are a couple of You Tube clips of the interiors, just search ‘Marmula’ 

Land Forts 

For an enemy wanting to attack the naval base at Kotor, the alternative approach to destroying the naval forts is to land on the coast and attack over the Vrmac Hills. To defend against this the Austrian’s built a series of forts on these hills. They reminded me of Austrian forts in the Italian Alps, although these are less well integrated into the terrain. You leave the old Tivat road just before the Cetinje road turning at the brown sign 'Vrmac'. This takes you on a steep winding Austrian military road up to the main fortress complex. My admiration for Austrian military engineers knows no bounds!

It's all a bit overgrown, but the main block can be walked around on a path. You can take the car a bit further past the fort to a barracks and a large gun pit. About 500 yards on the way down at a hairpin bend there is a path. Park the car and walk for about 300 yards and there is another fort than covers the old road into Kotor from the coast. The mountain in the background would have been the Montenegrin positions, so you get a good feel for how the position was overlooked. 

 Further Information

There are more details of how to access the forts in our travel section . For the history of Montenegro I would recommend ‘Realm of the Black Mountain’ by Elizabeth Roberts. There are a few references to the Austrian Army in the region in ‘The Army of Francis Joseph’ by Gunther Rothenberg.


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Last modified: 01/23/12