How the Ottoman Empire Entered WWI—Prelude to the Gallipoli Campaign
The Beginning of the End of The Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman Empire had been in decline since about 1699, when a treaty to end what was primarily a regional war saw the Turks give up Hungary and Transylvania to Austria. Over the years, repeated wars with both Austria and Russia had significantly weakened the Ottoman Empire, stretched its forces and drained the Sultan’s coffers.
Hostilities continued through the 18th century, and into the 19th century. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 was aimed at ending Turkish rule in the Balkan states. The ensuing Treaty of San Stefano and the subsequent Congress of Berlin had the European Great Powers at the table, and though the Ottomans remained a European power, Austria-Hungary was favored over the Russians. And the Balkan states that had long been part of the Ottoman Empire became the powder kegs that started WWI.
When Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, Turkey was not allied with any of the European powers. History had left Turkey isolated, and her detractors were just waiting to carve up the spoils; all of the European powers had ambitions in the region.
But the ‘Young Turks’ as they were known, led by Enver Bey, were on a course to return the country to glory. Their long-standing hatred of Russia, suspicions regarding Germany’s true intentions and resentment of Britain for snubs both real and perceived, meant that Turkey sat on the sidelines as WWI got underway, unable to choose which power to cast their chips for. Among the Turkish leaders, there was a great divide about which power would prove to be the best suitor. Their hands would ultimately be forced.
The Grand Prize - The Dardanelles
Turkey had a significant asset to offer the winning suitor, and that was simply her geographic location. The narrow strait at the bottom of the Black Sea was the only route available to Russia year-round, as all other Russian ports were ice-locked during the winter months. From the Black Sea, ships could steam through the Dardanelles and into the Mediterranean.
Britain, in its haughty Imperial way, had snubbed Turkey once too often. A request by the Turks in 1911 for a formal alliance had been squashed by none other than Winston Churchill. This snub would turn out to have dire consequences for the Allies. Germany was eager to cut Russia off at the knees, and pushed the Turks to decide. Britain provided the final impetus by seizing two battleships that were being built in Britain for Turkey, with the excuse being that Britain needed the ships for her own use due to the looming war in Europe.
Black Sea Access Through the Dardanelles
"Proceed to Constantinople"
On August 4th, at the very dawn of WWI, a wireless message was received by German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon in the Mediterranean. It read:
“Alliance with Turkey concluded August 3. Proceed at once to Constantinople.”
Maneuvers in the Mediterranean
On August 3rd, 1914 Turkey signed a formal alliance with Germany. Britain seizing the battleships she was building for Turkey—ships the Turks had paid a huge sum of money for—was the final straw, and no further insults by Britain would be tolerated in Constantinople. The ink on the alliance agreement was barely dry before Germany started trying to compel the Turks to declare war on Russia, but Turkey preferred to see which way the war would go—at least for a bit—before making a formal declaration of war on her centuries-old enemy.
Britain and France, meanwhile, were both focused on protecting the transport ships carrying French colonial troops to Europe. Crucial to the success of the war plans drawn up by the Allies was the safe arrival of these 80,000 men in Europe. The British and French navies had a massive presence in the Mediterranean at the time, made up of battleships, cruisers and destroyers.
Though attacking the French transport ships was clearly something the Germans would have otherwise been focused on, there was a greater prize at stake—the Dardanelles. Germany at the time had the second largest naval fleet in the world after Britain, yet she had only two ships in the entire Mediterranean. With war looming, the two German cruisers, Goeben and Breslau, began a dangerous game of cat and mouse with British vessels as both sides awaited news regarding the state of war.
Churchill ordered Admiral Archibald Milne to keep the two German ships in sight. But German Admiral Souchon was wily and managed to avoid detection by the British for long periods of time, making trouble as he went. In one such incident on August 4th, his ships harassed the Algerian coast while flying the Russian flag.
The German Cruiser Goeben (Later Renamed Yavûz Sultân Selîm)
The Race to Constantinople
On August 2nd, the British Navy was advised that the Goeben had been spotted in Taranto, Italy. But they could not yet fire on the German ships, as war had not yet been formally declared against Germany. Admiral Souchon attempted to put as much distance between his ships and the British as possible. Three British ships were trying to keep up the chase, but the Brits were loosing the race.
By the time war was formally declared against Germany, the British Navy had lost sight of their prey. The British Admiralty was convinced the two German cruisers would make for Malta in an attempt to escape. Hampering Britain’s ability to catch the cruisers and recoal her own ships was an order received by Admiral Milne in the Mediterranean to respect Italy’s neutrality. Admiral Milne was also convinced that the German cruisers would head westward, so when the six-mile limit imposed by Italy’s neutrality prevented him from entering the Straits of Messina, he set up ships to guard both the western end of the Strait as well as the eastern end, which was the exit to the eastern Mediterranean. He was convinced the cruisers were at Messina, and that they would come out at the western end.
He was wrong.
Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau
"For political reasons, entry into Constantinople inadvisable at the present time"— So read one of two messages received from Admiral Tirpitz as Admiral Soechen was recoaling the Goebe
Soechen Makes his Move
The Turkish War Minister had initially provided permission to the German Ambassador for the two German cruisers to enter the Dardanelles. But the Turkish counsel and the Grand Vizier insisted that, publicly at least, Turkey needed to maintain her neutrality, so permission was withdrawn. That led to the above message being transmitted to Admiral Soechen, advising him not to head for Turkey.
The second message Soechen had received while in Messina advised him that Austria could not provide him with any assistance, and basically left it up to him to decide what to do. Admiral Soechen knew he would never reach Gibraltar, so he decided to ignore Tirpitz's first message and head to Constantinople anyway, hoping to force the Turks to declare war on Russia.
The German cruisers raced toward Turkey through the eastern end of the Strait of Messina. Only the Gloucester, a British light cruiser under the command of Captain Kelly, and no match for the guns on the Goeben, was there to meet them. With Britain and Germany now formally at war, the Gloucester needed help, as she could not risk engaging the cruisers on her own. Help was anchored off the mouth of the Adriatic in the form of four British armored cruisers and eight destroyers commanded by Rear Admiral Troubridge that were also no match for the Goeben.
The entrance to the Dardanelles had been mined, and the Goeben and Breslau would need an escort from Turkey to get through the mine field. Would Turkey dare to publicly escort the ships to Constantinople?
Under extreme pressure from the Germans, the Turkish War Minister relented, and a Turkish destroyer was sent to escort the two cruisers through the dangerous waters.
Allied governments were aghast as news spread of the presence of the German cruisers. Turkey was still desperately trying to maintain public neutrality in hopes of securing greater enticements from the Allies, and messages were flying back and forth among all parties. Russia was willing to pay a steep price by renouncing any intent on having Constantinople for herself. France too was willing to strike a bargain with Turkey to keep them neutral. But Britain would not bargain with them, and Churchill proposed to send ships through the Dardanelles to torpedo the German cruisers. But he was overruled by Lord Kitchener, who maintained that Turkey would have to make the first move.
Breslau (Renamed Midilli) Flying the Turkish Flag
The Seeds of the Gallipoli Campaign are Sewn
And move they did, though not by their own hand. In a brilliant bit of PR, the Turks had informed world leaders via their Ambassadors that the German cruisers had been purchased by Turkey to replace the two confiscated by the British. Turkish flags were hoisted on the ships, and Turkish officers and seamen joined the ranks. Britain was content that a threat had been removed from the Mediterranean.
But the Germans were growing increasingly tired of the Turks refusal to declare war on Russia. After Germany's pullback after the Battle of Marne in September, and Russia's gains against Austria-Hungary, Germany started looking at Turkey as being more and more of a useful ally.
On October 28th, 1914 the German/Turkish cruisers with their German Commander on the bridge, sailed into the Black Sea and fired on the Russian ports of Odessa, Novorossiysk and Sevastopol. On November 2nd, Russia declared war on Turkey, followed on the 5th by the other members of the Entente, Britain and France.
The stage was now set for Gallipoli.
Reflecting on what happened when Germany forced Turkey into WWI, Churchill later wrote that the Goeben had caused "more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."
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© 2015 Kaili Bisson